Abu Dhabi's new Cityscape

The capital's annual property showcase is less extravagant and more introspective after the market's downturn, but the big developers want it to be known they are still here and doing business.

This year's Cityscape Abu Dhabi will be devoted to the transparency and delivery of projects. Above, one of the projects presented during last year's edition.
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The capital's top property executives will gather next week at an important moment of transition in the development of Abu Dhabi.

Thousands of new homes are to come on to the market this year, even after prices dropped by as much as 20 per cent last year, in a move that will have resounding impacts across the emirate.

Rohan Marwaha, the managing director of Cityscape, says this year's Abu Dhabi conference will be devoted to "completion, transparency and delivery of projects".

The change of focus in the show is in sharp contrast to the heady days of the Abu Dhabi market in 2008, when Cityscape was overrun with property investors, and developers showed off bigger and flashier projects.

"Now it's about offering security to investors that the completion dates will be met," Mr Marwaha says.

In a telling sign, the largest exhibitor at the conference is again the Urban Planning Council. City planners will roll out their immense Abu Dhabi model depicting the future of the city as laid out in Abu Dhabi's plan for 2030, and there will be announcements from developers.

The keynote speech is to be given by Majid Ali al Mansouri, the chairman of the Department of Municipal Affairs, a policy body that has been working on new laws and regulations for the property market.

Another topic of discussion will be the impact on the UAE's property market of the unrest in parts of the Middle East and North Africa.

Given the uncertainties, companies are considering relocating from countries such as Libya, Bahrain, Tunisia and Egypt.

"Tourism has benefited in Dubai and Abu Dhabi as a result of the ongoing political situations," Mr Marwaha says. "Both have proven to be very stable markets and the real estate sector should be no different."

Last year Cityscape Abu Dhabi had about 28,000 visitors. This year, Mr Marwaha says early registrations suggest visitor numbers could rise by as much as 10 per cent.

The amount of space is the same and the conference has slightly more than the 306 exhibitors of last year. Those that rebooked for this year were given a discount on the conference fee.

At next week's conference, which runs from Sunday to Wednesday, the seminars will touch on topics such as alternative sources of funding for construction, affordable housing and looking "beyond the crisis".

Speakers include some newly appointed executives, such as Peter Wilding, the head of Mubadala Real Estate and Hospitality, and Sami Asad, who replaced John Bullough as the chief executive of Aldar Properties last November.

The conference will still have some of the mainstays of previous years. There will be platters of dates and ample coffee available on every corner, and the occasional extravagant stand, such as the Abu Dhabi Municipality's "4D" movie experience about the city.

But Cityscape Abu Dhabi has shifted away from its private-sector focus towards becoming a showcase for government-related companies, says Wael Tawil, the chief executive of Baniyas Investment& Development.

"Cityscape used to be the marketplace where people come to shop units," Mr Tawil says. Now, all the announcements and regulations "cascade from the government-related entities".

A pressing concern for Abu Dhabi developers is the deterioration of prices. Much of the development launched across the city was fuelled by the same investors who caused an even bigger property boom in Dubai. So now that thousands of units are expected to become available, the fear is prices may drop even further.

In villa communities such as Mohammed Bin Zayed City and Khalifa City, rents have fallen 10 per cent since the start of this year, after dropping as much as 50 per cent last year, according to a report by the property consultancy Cluttons.

On the Corniche and in other more sought-after areas, the decline was closer to 5 per cent in this year's first quarter, Cluttons reported, adding it expected prices to keep falling as new properties are delivered.

More than 3,000 units are close to handover on Reem Island alone. Another 3,000 are in the final stages of construction at Raha Beach.

"It is inevitable that average rental rates will continue to drop as we move into the summer, aided by the new stock coming to the market," Cluttons said in its first-quarter report.

More than anything, this year's conference will centre on a key idea: Abu Dhabi developers are still here and proceeding with projects.

Even if some of the smaller players have disappeared, the major companies have either restructured or recapitalised in the face of the worst property downturn the country has seen in its short history.