By Hisham Youssef
Post-recession, architects in the Gulf must learn to design for form and function
Dubai took the brunt of the downfall of the real estate market in the UAE, some might say unjustifiably so. After all, it was Dubai that set the standard for world class, innovative design and development in the region, perhaps even the world.
Luckily, other markets have since come to the fore to lead the region in getting out of the economic slump. Qatar and Saudi Arabia seem to be the current front runners while Abu Dhabi has also secured a position in the lead. But let’s pause for a moment to reflect on the type of work being developed.
In these trying times, it is prudent to look back to lessons learned from Dubai. To be fair, Dubai set the benchmark for design in the Middle East and indeed globally – the emirate came from near obscurity to household name around the world.
We have all seen the flashy roadside billboards advertising luxury projects that promise great living, work and leisure. But is this what is needed? To some extent it is, but the real need is elsewhere. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Abu Dhabi are investing a lot in infrastructure projects, as they plan ahead, but, given the current global economic situation and the reality on the ground in the region, many of the so-called ‘luxury’ residential and retail projects are probably mis-directed. Whether it is the demographics of the UAE with only a small percentage of the population indigenous, or KSA with up to about 80% of the population indigenous, the need is very similar for housing. However, what is needed is affordable, not luxury, housing.
Beyond the preparation for sports and support projects for the World Cup 2022 in Doha, and huge investment in road and sanitation infrastructure in KSA, each of the GCC markets have different needs, especially in markets where the indigenous population is a minority. In Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Doha, for example, focus needs to be on infrastructure projects, and developing a business plan for the cities, which in turn can inform and support a development plan for the right mix of projects. Luxury projects are most certainly not the answer.
The good news is that the GCC countries have a great advantage of possessing more than ample funds to invest in their future. Educational projects must be a key component to this future strategy. Elementary and secondary schools, as well as research institutions, will help build a strong foundation of an educated generation of leaders in the region.
So while I support more infrastructure, affordable housing and educational projects, I am not against luxury projects if they address real needs. The MENA region is an emerging market where much is needed to raise the quality of its real estate stock. But the extreme of almost everything uniquely driven by luxury – and not within reach of most of the population – defeats the purpose of developing a stable real estate market. It is also not the best way to invest in the future of the region.
I agree with this article, infrastructure, schools, affordable housing, more regulation in the property sector will future proof this region.
The GCC real estate market urgently needs a no-holds-barred regulator(s) with teeth to set specifications/standards on all types of property and buildings development, and based on these set standards provide correlated pricing guidelines again based on reasonable investment returns, in order to really expand the RE market especially to the local resident buyers. The end-product pricing guidelines are a must because there is also a requirement that development inputs be achieved at reasonable parameters (without cost parameters, RE projects in GCC will be hard to finance and sell). Without a regulator and standards, the RE market will remain out of whack with imbalances in the types of developments and purchasing attractiveness.