Affordable housing is a Gulf priority

The shortage of affordable housing is one of the social problems underlying the unrest in the Middle East

Rapid urbanisation has led to the growth of huge cities. In 2011 the population of Riyadh was 5.45m, Kuwait City 2.4m and Dubai nearly 2m.

The GCC population is still young: The population median age in 2010 was lowest in Oman (25 years) and Saudi Arabia (26 years) and highest in Qatar. (32 years). This 'youth bulge' means that the fastest growing segment of the GCC population is the younger generation from the lower- and middle-income group who are newly entering the labor market and looking for small affordable houses. This is a temporary situation as the population is expected to get older over the next 50 years.

Another reason for urban expansion is the influx of foreign labor, which flooded into the region more than 40 years ago. The private sector still relies heavily on foreign workers and they still account for between 50 percent and 90 percent of the labour force in GCC countries.

A third factor is related to the lack of available land for affordable housing construction. Arable land is scarce due to drought, desertification, and land degradation, and agricultural productivity and rural subsistence are threatened. Saudi Arabia occupies four-fifths of the Arabian Peninsula but the majority of its lands are desert. Oman, Qatar and the UAE are smaller, built originally on desert lands, and lack habitable agricultural and rural areas. Bahrain is an archipelago of 33 islands with limited rural areas. According to the World Bank (2009) the percentage of land that is arable is for Bahrain 1.3 percent, Kuwait 0.6 percent, Oman 0.3 percent, Qatar 1 percent, Saudi Arabia 1.5 percent and the UAE 0.8 percent.

Challenges in the provision of affordable housing

Inadequate housing finance constitutes a major challenge for the provision of affordable housing in the GCC region. Housing finance includes plot distribution, land servicing, and the provision of loan and mortgage facilities through the banking system. Mortgages are difficult to obtain for those on low monthly salaries due to the limitations of a mortgage market that constitutes less than 5 percent of the region's gross domestic product. Other obstacles include the restriction of mortgage information, a dearth of innovative solutions, an inadequate regulatory framework, and business models that are still at an initial stage.

In Saudi Arabia, many housing problems have been connected until a few months ago to the scarcity of mortgage financing and the lack of official legislation to regulate mortgage lending. The state-funded Real Estate Development Fund gave subsidised medium or long-term loans to Saudi individuals for private or commercial housing projects but did not lend money to buy land. Borrowers have tended to treat extended loans as charity and default on payments is high. In the UAE, special conditions are provided for those eligible for mortgages and banks are now selective when lending money, favoring people who own their own business.

Social and cultural considerations constitute another critical challenge in the context of affordable housing. The physical aspect and the design of housing are linked to socio-cultural factors, including norms and lifestyles. Almost all GCC nationals prefer to live in houses rather than apartments. Social requirements such as privacy, social cohesion of family members within the same housing unit, and independence from residential density are all factors young people consider in looking at affordable housing. Most of the major housing projects built by GCC governments during the past decades were relegated to remote areas where the land was cheaper. They not only lacked important social infrastructural requirements but they also neglected the extended family structure and traditional values of segregation.

Location and public transport systems represent another challenge for affordable housing. Most GCC countries lack a well-developed and effective urban planning system that covers affordable housing projects. Most projects are usually built outside the boundaries of the city where land is cheaper and they lack an adequate public urban transportation system. The absence of transport disadvantages residents needing to travel to work or school as not everyone has access to private cars.

Another issue is sustainability. Sustainable construction is environmentally responsible and resource-efficient and has to consider location, design, construction, operation, maintenance, renovation, and demolition. Most GCC affordable housing projects tend to neglect the quality of the environment ignoring factors such as site/energy optimisation, water conservation, waste/pollution reduction, and environment degradation. The integration of smaller units and efficient use of land are important factors for housing sustainability and "green" building is important for reducing the overall impact of the built environment on health and the natural environment, but both these areas have been neglected by GCC construction.

Dr Mona AlMunajjed is a sociologist, author and adviser on social and gender issues

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