UAE Real Estate: A Buyers’ Market

Published in Forbes Middle East, 23 October 2016

The real estate developers were putting a brave face on it, saying they had been remarkably busy, but there was no hiding the fact that the Dubai Property Show in London in mid-May was both small and, at least on the first day of the show on Friday afternoon, sparsely attended. Around a dozen developers including Dubap Properties, Tebyan Real Estate Development and Binghatti Developers filled part of the Olympia West exhibition hall, which was dominated by a Nakheel stand in the centre.

It was certainly a far cry from the likes of the Cityscape show in Dubai, but that’s perhaps to be expected. London is after all a long way from the U.A.E., and the gloss has come off Dubai’s real estate scene of late. Prices are down by 15% from their mid-2014 peak and confidence is low in the light of the oil price slump.

In addition, the rise of the U.A.E dirham (and other Gulf currencies pegged to the dollar) means that inward investment into the region is becoming more expensive for a lot of po­tential buyers. And while expat residents in the Gulf who are earning money in the local currency are not affected, the re­gional economic slowdown also means that some of them are losing their jobs, selling up and leaving the country.

Craig Plumb, head of research at estate agency Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL), says the rising value of the dirham has “definite­ly been a factor” for international investors in the residential market. “The volume of residential sales in Dubai over the first half of 2016 is down by around 30% compared to the same period last year,” he says.

But such trends do not mean the whole system is about to come crashing down. In broad terms, the market for cross-bor­der real estate investment continues to be fairly vibrant, even if these days the bulk of the deals involve Gulf investors putting their money in international markets, rather than overseas buyers picking up properties within the region. Plumb says Middle East investors bought almost $9.5 billion of real estate outside the region in the second quarter of this year, compared to $2.3 billion of capital flowing into the region.

“There has been a shift in the nature of [outbound] invest­ments, with private investors becoming relatively more impor­tant compared to the major sovereign wealth funds,” he adds. “But the desire to invest in real estate assets outside the region remains.”

This trend has been developing for a couple of years. According to CBRE, another real estate consultancy, a total of $14.1 billion of investment flowed from the Gulf to other parts of the world in 2014, with Qatar leading the way with $4.9 billion of purchases, followed by Saudi Arabia ($2.3 billion) and the U.A.E. ($1.6 billion). The total was down on the $16.3 billion a year before but it still made the Gulf the third largest source of capital in the world after North America ($66.5 bil­lion) and Asia ($28 billion).

While much of the outward investment has historically been done by sovereign wealth funds, in the wake of lower oil prices they have been drawing down some assets to help plug their government’s budget deficits. That leaves them with less to invest. However, that trend is being partly balanced by the fact that rich individuals are showing more inclination to in­vest overseas. CBRE predicts that while sovereign wealth fund investments in global real estate will fall from $9-11 billion a year to around $7-9 billion a year going forward, non-institu­tional investments from the Middle East will rise to an annual figure of $6-7 billion, up from an average of around $3 billion in 2010-2013.

London has long been the most enticing market for Middle East investors and it still holds the top spot, but it is not as dominant as it once was. In 2014, the U.K. capital city accounted for 32% of all outbound investment, compared to 45% in 2013. Other large Western cities followed it in popular­ity, including Paris ($2.2 billion), New York ($1.3 billion) and Washington ($481 million).

More recent events have altered the landscape, in particu­lar the vote by the U.K. in June this year to leave the European Union. That is pushing investors to re-evaluate their position. A recent survey by financial advisory firm DeVere Group found that 69% of its clients, including some in the U.A.E. and Qatar, intended to decrease their investment exposure to the U.K. following the Brexit vote.

“High net worth investors are overwhelmingly consider­ing rebalancing and diversifying their portfolios following the U.K.’s decision to leave the EU,” says Nigel Green, chief executive officer of the firm. “These investors are seeking to reduce their exposure to U.K.-based assets in the wake of the impending Brexit.”

Nonetheless, the motivation to invest in overseas markets still remains strong, whether because investors want to diver­sify their portfolios away from their home market and from dollar-denominated (or dollar-pegged) assets, or simply a de­sire to buy a residence for themselves or family members in overseas cities.

That helps to explain the results of another survey released earlier this year by property consultancy Cluttons, which found that 61% of high-net-worth individuals (HNWIs) in the GCC were likely to invest in their preferred location in 2016, against 25% who said they were unlikely to (the remaining 14% said they weren’t sure). Of those, London was the preferred city for 13% of investors, followed by New York and Bangalore in India. Half of these investors were targeting residential prop­erty, while 22% favored commercial property and 28% were looking for a mixture of both.

They are not just investing in distant lands though. Just over half (53%) of HNWIs in the U.A.E. told Cluttons that Middle East locations were among their top three investment targets for the year ahead. Dubai and Abu Dhabi were, perhaps unsurprisingly, the most popular, cited by 30% and 23% of re­spondents respectively. They were followed by Sharjah (8%), Muscat, Kuwait City, Doha and Riyadh. The reasons for the U.A.E. cities’ popularity stem from the country’s role as both a trading hub for the region and also—particularly in the case of Dubai—its position as a safe haven.

That too has been one of the long-term attractions of London. And although the political uncertainty caused by Brexit has unnerved some investors and led them to postpone or cancel some deals, demand is expected to recover before long. For one thing, the rise of the U.A.E. dirham and other Gulf currencies pegged to the dollar over the past few years means that it is now far cheaper for Gulf investors to buy U.K. property than it was previously, all the more so following the slump in the value of the pound after the Brexit vote.

As a result, many real estate agents say they are expecting interest in London to recover in the second half of the year.

“One of the key things of benefit to buyers from the Gulf is the fact that the majority of them, except for Kuwait, maintain a fixed exchange rate with the U.S. dollar. That means they’re effectively purchasing in dollars, so for them London property became 12% cheaper overnight on 23 June [the date of the ref­erendum],” says Faisal Durrani, head of research at Cluttons. “Since the referendum, some of our offices in locations like Belgravia and Chelsea have reported an upturn in interest from buyers from the Gulf.”

Whether the investments follow remains to be seen but, for everyone involved, the ups and downs of recent years in Dubai and London alike is at least a useful reminder of the inherent volatility in real estate investment no matter where you are in the world.