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This year's Cityscape may provide clues about the future of long-delayed projects. Jaime Puebla / The National
This year's Cityscape may provide clues about the future of long-delayed projects. Jaime Puebla / The National

Cityscape expo signals optimism returning to Dubai property market

Cityscape: After three years of falling prices and gloomy headlines, the industry and Dubai are eager to show the worst is over. Watch video

The days of talking robots, lavish parties and clowns wandering the floor to pitch sky-busting towers in Dubai are now part of history for Cityscape Global.

Once considered the largest property show in the world, the annual bash will be a more modest affair when the doors open today at the Dubai International Convention and Exhibition Centre.

But the expo arrives at a crucial time for the market. After three years of falling prices and gloomy headlines, the industry and the Dubai Government are eager to show the world that the worst is over, sales are occurring and the business is regaining some semblance of normality.

"It's been a subdued year, but there are investors who want to expand in the market," says Matthew Green, the head of consultancy for the UAE office of the property company CB Richard Ellis.

Last week, the Dubai Land Department announced a programme called Tanmia to help find investors for stalled projects. More than 100 developments may be covered by the programme, Land Department executives say.

The programme certainly will be a hot topic of discussion during Cityscape, which is now centred primarily on investors and the financial community instead of consumers.

Industry executives hope the Government will also use the Cityscape forum to provide details on the programme of extended visas for foreign property buyers, announced this year.

In June, the Government announced it would offer a three-year visa to property buyers but did not say whether there would be a minimum purchase necessary or when the programme would start.

Several of Dubai's biggest property companies, which traditionally have focused on holding projects, may use the show to put assets up for sale as they look to recapitalise and reduce debt, analysts say.

Last year, Union Properties sold its interest in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in the Dubai International Financial Centre shortly after Cityscape, a move some analysts believe may be a sign of things to come for many Dubai companies.

The show may also provide clues about the future of long-delayed projects, such as Dubailand, a collection of theme parks, residential developments and shopping complexes once billed as the largest master-planned development in the world.

But few analysts expect the type of fireworks that characterised past shows.

The exhibition has undergone fundamental changes, in part reflected in its name change from Cityscape Dubai to Cityscape Global two years ago. Most of the exhibitors this year will be international companies.

Led by Dubai Properties Group, Emaar, Nakheel and Meraas, Dubai developers still take 75 per cent of the exhibition space, but the international business is gaining prominence, says Rohan Marwaha, the managing director of Cityscape.

In the boom years, the show took on a life of its own, as developers used the exhibition space to sell off-plan properties.

Although organisers tried to discourage direct sales, buyers arrived at the show with cheque books in hand, eager to put money down on the latest mega-projects.

These days it is strictly a business-to-business affair, more of a networking opportunity than a promotional event.

"We've gone back to what the core of the event has always been," says Mr Marwaha. "We're getting back to the fundamentals of what makes real estate work."

The show has been shrinking since the boom years. It peaked in 2008 when more than 46,000 people attended and 300 companies exhibited. In 2009, attendance fell to a little over 38,000 and 218 companies spotlighted projects, covering 39,000 square metres of exhibition space.

Last year, the show featured 181 exhibitors over 29,250 sq metres, with attendance estimated at 28,700.

This year some big names will be absent from the show floor, including Mubadala Development, a strategic investment company owned by the Abu Dhabi Government. The show will cover three halls in the convention centre, instead of eight in 2008.

But the property agency Better Homes, which was once a staple of the event, is returning for the first time in three years, and with only a small booth promoting its commercial business.

"We're not trying to sell anything," says Ryan Mahoney, the chief executive of Better Homes. "We're trying to create awareness in the industry."

Better Homes stopped exhibiting when the off-plan market dried up.

"It was like someone turned the lights off," Mr Mahoney says. "By the end of 2008, we felt it was wrong for us."

Now the focus is on industry professionals. Forums will discuss sustainability issues, future city designs and ways to boost the business.

"Cityscape is not about the exhibitions now, it's about the conferences," says Bansrelal Goshichand, the marketing manager for Jones Lang LaSalle's UAE office.

kbrass@thenational.ae

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