UAE’s hot property cools for a year

This was the year when the long decline of oil prices took a bite out of the country’s property market. Brokers have yet to come up with final figures for the year but all agree that prices and rents fell significantly in 2016 in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and the Northern Emirates.

Oil prices, which had climbed to historic levels of more than US$100 a barrel in 2011, 2012 and 2013, plummeted in the second half of 2014 and fell again in the second half of 2015. By the start of this year, the price of Brent crude had sunk to $28.94 a barrel, roughly a quarter of its level of a year and a half earlier.

House prices in Dubai and Abu Dhabi took their cues from crude, with a time lag of course – and with Abu Dhabi further lagging the larger market of Dubai by around 18 months.

Reidin, the property data company that is referenced by many brokers including JLL and CBRE, said that average house prices in Dubai fell by 12 per cent in the two years to the end of October and rents dipped by about 8 per cent. In Abu Dhabi, it said that prices fell by 3 per cent over the same period and rents are down by 4 per cent.

The property sector was also weakened by the rise to historic highs of the US dollar, to which the dirham is pegged. The higher the dollar is, the more it costs for many overseas buyers to invest in UAE property.

At the start of 2016 most brokers had been predicting that after two years of falls brought about by the strong dollar and a raft of new cooling measures imposed by the Dubai Land Department, house prices in Dubai would start to recover by the middle of the year.

Then in June, the UK’s shock vote to leave the European Union plummeted the British pound to historic lows, adding Brits to the growing list of overseas investors who were finding it more and more expensive to buy UAE property.

The news prompted JLL to hurriedly revise its forecasts, delaying its expectations for recovery until at least the end of 2016. “Provided there are no major external shocks over the rest of the year, we expect the Dubai residential market to recover in early 2017,” JLL said in a note in July.

But external shocks were something not in short supply in 2016. In November, Donald Trump clinched a surprise election win. The dollar rose to record highs. And, with the Federal Reserve deciding to raise interest rates this month, pushing the dollar still higher, the chances of a Dubai house price recovery seemed to be slipping further and further away.

Most brokers now say that they expect a recovery to occur some time in 2017.

Still, when exactly average house prices will start to go up remains hotly debated.

Optimists point to an expected increase in Dubai government infrastructure spending next year ahead of Expo 2020, which is likely to boost jobs and the fact that oil prices are already up by about 20 per cent after a global deal to reduce output last month.

Core Savills says that it had already seen an increase in sale prices in some of Dubai’s lower to midmarket submarkets.

It said that, although prices in prime areas such as Downtown Dubai, Dubai Marina and Palm Jumeirah continue to edge lower, average sales prices in areas such as Dubai Silicon Oasis, Dubai Sports City, International City and Discovery Gardens had risen by between 3 and 5 per cent from their lowest levels at the start of 2016.

JLL says that it thinks the Dubai market is “close to the bottom of its current cycle” and that prices are likely to go up next year.

And Knight Frank predicts “a gradual recovery” in 2017 as the market rebounds and investors regain confidence. However, pessimists point to the continuing strength of the dollar. They also say that although new jobs are due to be created in Dubai next year, they will not be for the sort of high-level executives who would buy or rent prime properties.

Cluttons says that it does not expect a recovery in Dubai’s property market until the end of 2017.

“While Dubai’s economy is still diversified, it’s the senior-level jobs that have been lost,” said Faisal Durrani, the head of research at Cluttons. “Also, the rate of [job] replacement and creation has slowed down.”

And Jesse Downs, the managing director of Phidar Advisory is even more pessimistic, predicting that prices in Dubai will continue to fall throughout next year as a trend towards automation leads financial institutions in Dubai continue to shed jobs.

“The risk in the residential market remains on the downside. Weak investment demand and softening rents will push rates down in 2017,” said Ms Downs. “The recent interest rate hike by the FOMC will likely support US dollar strength and, combined with a still relatively low oil price, will continue to constrain investment demand for Dubai real estate in the coming year.”

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