Robert Lee is used to talking up ambitious mega projects. The Canadian real estate executive has 25 years of experience in the business behind him and since arriving in the Gulf in early 2000 he has held several senior executive positions and was instrumental in bringing iconic projects, such as Dubai Marina and Palm Jumeirah, to fruition.
We first met Lee during the epic days of the boom at Cityscape Dubai 2008, when he was working for Nakheel and launching its big showcase for the event: the 1km tall Nakheel Harbour and Tower. Sadly, Nakheel’s big 2008 gamble never paid off as the Dubai real estate market imploded and the master developer entered one of the darkest periods in its recent history.
In 2012, while working for Emaar and with Dubai on the cusp of a recovery, Lee decided to take on another challenge and accepted the position of CEO of Bahrain Bay. Within the previous 12 months protests against the government had seen the cancellation of the 2011 Formula 1 Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix and the only headlines coming out of the Gulf state seemed to be Arab Spring unrest. Many people were surely asking the question: Why Bahrain?
“Why not?” is Lee’s standard response. “I have never been exposed to that in the last two years. We have all seen how certain things can be seen from certain prisms and how [the media] seek out to report a certain story. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist but it is not the 90 percent of life,” he adds.
“I spend a lot of time travelling around and you start on a one-to-one level,” he says of how he goes about selling Bahrain on the international stage. “The real estate industry is very small. You start there because most savvy investors will not rely on what is written in The Guardian but what it says in Jones Lang LaSalle reports or what Cluttons says about the market as then you can get a real feel for the market.”
Things certainly seem to be moving in the right direction and real estate firm CBRE describes the Bahrain real estate sector as showing the “first small signs of recovery”.
At a macro level, the country’s oil output has revived and gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 2.5 percent in the first quarter of 2013, compared to a contraction of 0.2 percent in the last quarter of 2012.
While there had been previous reports that companies were leaving for safer havens such as Dubai and projects were stalling, employment in Bahrain has also risen significantly over the last year, largely on the back of real estate and infrastructure pushing forward.
The country’s total workforce grew to around 650,000 out of a total population estimated at around 1.3 million. The number of permits issued in the first quarter of the year grew by 5.5 percent to 32,200, with 30 percent of these being in the construction sector.
With the government set to spend $8bn on housing projects up to 2017 and its housing arm, Eskan Bank, appointing specialists earlier this year to identify the most efficient fundraising methodology to support its plans to develop 2,500 housing units, the data and reports certainly speak for themselves.
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