Friday, September 12, 2008

Selling the Abu Dhabi dream

Original Article

New York // While Dubai scores the highest name recognition among Americans, representatives of Abu Dhabi companies and entities were out in force at the first Cityscape property exhibition in New York to try to redress the balance.

Ronald Barrott, the chief executive officer of Aldar, the emirate’s largest property developer, was on hand to explain some of the company’s developments, such as Yas Island, which will include a Formula One track and a Ferrari theme park.

“We’re here for awareness purposes, to start to explain our vision and masterplan, which will allow for infrastructure and development in a controlled way,” he said.

“We have a number of American shareholders but there’s still only a small number of people who appreciate the opportunities that are emerging in Abu Dhabi.”

Mr Barrott said the controversy over DP World’s investment in US ports two years ago had had no impact on investor relations, nor did he expect any fallout from the fact that Cityscape started on the eve of the seventh anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

When Robert Lee, the managing director of Nakheel, a Dubai-based property company, told a US immigration officer earlier this week that he worked in property, he was asked whether he was “buying or selling”. “That depends,” replied Mr Lee. “There are great opportunities for both sides.”

The executive, who helps to manage a multibillion dollar company including the Palm Jumeirah islands, was not being facetious. Ostensibly, his trip to the US was to take part in the exhibition, which is aimed at connecting US investors with emerging market opportunities, including those in the Gulf. But with the US economy in the doldrums, the investment flow remains concentrated in one direction – from east to west. A recent example is Abu Dhabi Investment Council’s 90 per cent purchase of Manhattan’s Chrysler building for US$800 million (Dh2.94bn).

Nonetheless, some of the Gulf’s biggest property names gathered at Cityscape to introduce themselves with the hope that potential US institutional investors will take more note.

“This is a great forum to introduce the key Middle East players and allow investors to realise that ‘hey, these are credible developers’,” Mr Lee said. “I was heartened to hear Donald Trump tell an audience earlier that Dubai was just like New York, Las Vegas or Miami.

“But people want to learn more about the regulatory framework before they feel comfortable and that’s only natural.

“Also, the big institutional investors can’t move as quickly as individual investors and often before they’ve even made a decision, others have moved in.”

Mr Lee rejected any notion that fraud investigations in the UAE were affecting the investment climate. “If anything, they’re adding credence to the system because people are seeing it applies to everybody,” he said.

Alan Gordon, the marketing manager at Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), also hoped to expand ties with New York and the US.

“We already have links with, for example, the Guggenheim and New York University on the Saadiyat Island development. By being here, we hope to supplement this first initiative,” he said.

“In general, awareness of the UAE is growing. People are glad to hear about our cultural centres and we’re opening up the conversation. We’re not here for a hard sell, rather to open a dialogue for the future, starting with explaining who is Abu Dhabi and TDIC.”

Investment opportunities included scope for joint ventures, management and franchises, Walter Kleinschmit, the president of R2E Consultants, told a panel discussing whether the Middle East was still “real estate’s best kept secret”.

He said the huge number of “ego-driven investments” in the Middle East would require management expertise to turn them into “profitable properties”.

Many of the panellists singled out Saudi Arabia as offering the biggest array of investment opportunities, not just in property but also in other sectors.

“Doing business is easier in Saudi Arabia than in Dubai,” said Daniel G. Goertz, of Capri Capital Partners. “For example, when I tried to trademark our logo across the region Saudi Arabia was the first to grant it.”

Meanwhile, US property companies, such as the Carlton Group, said they had yet to see any focused interest in the Gulf property market. “For the time being, we’re seeing more foreign money coming here than US money going out,” said Steve Fenster, one of the company’s managing directors.

Some Gulf-based property companies were at Cityscape more to network with other Middle Eastern players. “We haven’t seen much of a reaction so far in the US,” said Ali Reza Merali, of Cobalt Real Estate.

Usama Kalyar, of Goldcrest Properties, said he had spoken with a number of US institutional investors who were enthusiastic, but it would take time before any deals might be developed. “It will take at least a month after I get back to Dubai to see if anything happens,” he said. “But, so far, I’m quite happy with the response.”

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