Downturn will benefit some Middle East firms

28 August 2009

At first sight, investing in declining markets appears to be a bad move, but Al-Futtaim thinks otherwise. There are few real competitors, and an opportunity to grow market share.

In these uncertain times, there is one thing that is certain: there will winners as well as losers. So far, the losers have attracted all the attention. Cancelled projects and job cuts have dominated the headlines this year, and for six months it seemed as though the Middle East’s economy would not recover for years.

But this summer, there have been signs of a recovery. As the first anniversary of the collapse of US investment bank Lehman Brothers approaches in September, regional investors that can still afford to move ahead with projects are beginning to flex their financial muscles.

Dubai’s Al-Futtaim Group is one of the biggest. It wants to build major mixed-use developments across the region and is now in advanced negotiations to acquire land and gain permission to build projects in Qatar and Morocco. It has also been one of the few regional developers to award major contracts this year, at its Cairo Festival City development.

At first sight, investing in declining markets appears to be a bad move, but Al-Futtaim thinks otherwise. It still believes in the fundamentals of a region that has a young and growing population in need of places to live, shop and be entertained. It also sees the economic crisis as an opportunity. Real estate development was a crowded marketplace last year as virtually anyone with a permit used start-up cash from off-plan sales on new developments to launch themselves in business.

It is a different marketplace now. Without carefree lending from banks and easy sales, developers need cash to launch projects, which means there are few serious competitors, and a real opportunity to grow market share.

Al-Futtaim’s strategy is not without risk - the past year has provided a reminder for Gulf-based developers that the real estate business can be a perilous one. But with risk comes reward, and if investments are successful, companies like Al-Futtaim, which can continue to invest during the downturn, will become even more dominant than they are today.

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