x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Middle East property market still bears scars of Arab Spring

The Arab Spring more than two years ago left countries affected by the uprisings hoping for a brighter tomorrow. But for the property sectors in several of these nations, there is little on the horizon to spur optimism.

Sunset over a construction site in Cairo. Its property sector has been impacted by the Arab Spring. Stephen Lock / The National
Sunset over a construction site in Cairo. Its property sector has been impacted by the Arab Spring. Stephen Lock / The National

More than two years after a wave of violent protests started to sweep over parts of the Middle East, areas of the region are still very much in the grip of the Arab Spring.

Demonstrations that started in Tunisia brought down regimes in Egypt, Libya and Yemen, all of which remain unstable. Syria has fallen into a bloody civil war.

Bahrainis continue to stage demonstrations in and around the capital Manama.

Huge protests continue intermittently in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco and Sudan.

And smaller protests have occurred in Lebanon, Oman and even Saudi Arabia.

With elements of the political map of the Arab peninsula redrawn almost at the stroke of a pen, and power leaching from scores of established administrations virtually overnight, experts point out that property markets in the region - one of the surest indicators of power - could not fail to have been profoundly affected.

"As with any radical regional power changes, the Arab Spring has had a dramatic and mostly negative impact on the property markets across the Middle East," says Craig Plumb, the head of research for the Middle East and North Africa at Jones Lang LaSalle.

For those countries impacted, the longer term implications of this change remain difficult to discern, with upheaval continuing today. In the short term many investment decisions are on hold, with corporates remaining cautious.

For the areas most dramatically affected such as Syria, Libya and Yemen, a trail of images of burnt out and shelled buildings and scenes of fleeing refugees illustrate the havoc the Arab Spring has wrought. While in other areas, cranes continue to dot the horizon as smallholders take advantage of the power vacuum to build house extensions that could otherwise have been prevented by the authorities.

Data on property prices and transactions is sparse and unreliable and few international institutional investors are present in Syria, or indeed that region. But according to the Institute of International Finance, Syria's economy shrank by 20 per cent last year and inflation rose to 40 per cent as the country's civil war claimed as many as 40,000 lives.

Egypt's economy, too, has been hit hard by the Arab Spring. Before its recent revolution the country was a favourite in the region for both tourism, retail and other inward institutional investment.

Prior to the Arab Spring, the country was benefiting from a flurry of large-scale inward investment in its expanding tourism, retail and housing sectors. Property developers from the UAE, bruised by the 2008 global economic downturn flocked to the country in an attempt to spread their risk and add to the country's under-supplied prime property markets.

The Burj Khalifa developer Emaar invested Dh20.33 billion (US$5.53bn) in Egypt, including a Dh7.7bn development in Uptown Cairo and the Dh2.57bn Cairo Gate, a commercial and residential development. And Damac Properties, based in Dubai, announced a number of ambitious projects in Cairo, including Park Avenue, a mixed-use centre of 4 million square metres.

Al Futtaim Group is also developing Cairo Festival City, an indoor-outdoor shopping and entertainment centre of 154,000 square metres.

But a first wave of violent protests that brought about the ousting of the long-term president Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and a second last year have put many of those schemes on hold, leaving the country with scores of unbuilt and half-built projects the future of which hangs in the balance.

According to Jones Lang LaSalle's most recent Cairo market report, property prices and office rents continued to fall in the last quarter of last year and many development projects remain on hold.

Occupancy rates for hotels - one of Egypt's biggest industries - fell from just under 70 per cent in 2009 and about 66 per cent in 2010 to just 49 per cent in 2011, before improving slightly to 56 per cent last year as hotel operators slashed rates and offered cheap all-inclusive deals.

However, average room rates continued to fall from about $130 a night in 2010 to about $56 a night in 2011 and US$55 in 2010.

Prime office rents fell steadily from $45 per square metre per month in the second quarter of 2011 to US$40 per sq metre in the final quarter of last year. Quoting rents for shops in prime shopping centres remained static and likely to fall if the unrest continues.

Much of the GCC money leaving stricken countries in droves has sought a home in neighbouring Arab states.

Most notably Dubai has become the main beneficiary of Egypt's loss of business. The city was hit hard by the financial crisis that saw property prices halve between 2008 and 2011 and where scores of half-built towers still remain mothballed after developers ran out of money.

However, since 2011 an influx of Arab Spring-related tourists and investors has helped to stabilise the market.

According to recent figures released by Dubai's Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing, last year, for the first time, Dubai welcomed more than 10 million visitors. This included a 30 per cent increase in tourists from Saudi Arabia and a 54 per cent increase in Russian visitors. Average room rates increased from Dh563 to Dh588.

And, according to the estate agent Asteco, prices for villas in the emirate increased 23 per cent and apartment prices rose 14 per cent with sales volumes up by 9 per cent in the final three months of the year alone. The boom has prompted the opening of more hotels in the emirate with hotel numbers increasing from 575 to 599 properties last year.

And CBRE predicts that after five years of falling rents, prime office space could be the next sector to see rental increases in 2013 as the market begins to recover.

If you go back to 2011, pretty much all Saudis who could, holidayed in Egypt, says Mario Volpi, head of sales and leasing at Cluttons Dubai office.

Then, when the Arab Spring happened, initially the Dubai market felt it through tourism arrivals.

That influx led to an increase in the number of GCC nationals looking to buy and rent homes here and that in turn has led in recent months to local developers announcing new property schemes, still mostly in the hospitality or residential sectors.

For stable Arab states, the future looks rosy.