Foreign investors shun Cairo property in face of political turmoil

The market for grade-A office space and city shopping centres is hit by the political turmoil

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 October, 2013, 5:48am

The flight by foreign companies from violent unrest in Egypt threatens to drive up vacancy rates at offices and shopping centres and prompt international investors to shift funds to sub-Saharan real estate.

The army overthrew and imprisoned President Mohammed Mursi in July and the ensuing crackdown on his Muslim Brotherhood movement has killed about 900 people. This has prompted many multinational companies to cut back operations or pull out staff, particularly from central Cairo.

Weaker demand means property investors, who had been lured by Cairo's established business district, could swap what was North Africa's only viable property investment market for comparatively stable cities in sub-Saharan Africa, property experts said.

"The demand for class-A office space has almost disappeared overnight," said Ahmed Badrawi, managing director of Sodic , one of Egypt's biggest developers and behind the Eastown scheme in New Cairo, a massive development of offices, shops and homes.

The list of firms that have cut or suspended operations in Egypt, sold off businesses or pulled out staff in recent months includes Apache, Chevron, General Motors , Electrolux, BASF, BG Group and BP.

A series of developments that tried to capitalise on a shortage of high-quality offices in Cairo have recently been completed, while others are under construction, but there are doubts over whether they will find tenants.

About 25 per cent of the best office space in Cairo was vacant, property consultant Jones Lang LaSalle said in June, a figure that it said would grow by an unspecified amount. That compares with between 7 per cent and 8 per cent in central Paris or London.

Rents for the best Cairo offices have fallen to US$40 per square metre per month from US$50 since 2009, while retail rents have dived to US$100 per square metre per month from US$150, data from real estate consultant Knight Frank shows.

"If office leases in Cairo expire and tenants are looking to renew there are going to be some pretty frank discussions with the landlord and I'd expect a major impact on new deals," said Peter Welborn, Knight Frank's managing director of Africa, saying tenants may seek cuts of 50 per cent.

There is no data for overseas investment into Egyptian property but the flow has ground to a halt since the crackdown.

South African funds led the charge, buying existing buildings in Egypt, attracted by yields, or rent as a percentage of the property's value, of about 7 per cent against about 5 per cent in the United Arab Emirates.

Buyers included funds linked to Rand Merchant Bank and Stanbic Bank, a division of Standard Bank .

Meanwhile, Gulf developers sought to capitalise on a lack of high-quality offices and shopping centres and now faced an excess of supply, said Habiba Hegab, an analyst at Cairo-based Beltone Financial.

They include Dubai's largest developer. Emaar Properties, which is building the Uptown Cairo scheme, a luxury development of homes, hotels and golf courses in Mukkattam Hills, overlooking the capital.

Others include Dubai shopping centre developer Majid Al Futtaim, privately held Dubai firm Damac and state-owned Qatari Diar.

Emaar said Egypt remained a core market and its operations were "ongoing as scheduled". Al Futtaim and Damac did not comment.

It is a far cry from several years ago when retailers and shopping centre developers were eager to tap into Egypt's predominantly young, 85 million-plus population, many of who aspire to Western shopping habits, by building Dubai-style mega-malls.

Military curfews in a city that revels in late-night shopping means many retailers are revising plans, and JLL estimates the shopping centre vacancy rate of 25 per cent will rise as more developments are completed.

Talks to take luxury brands such as Harrods, Gucci and Prada to Egypt were also on hold, real estate sources said.

Egypt's loss could be sub Saharan Africa's gain, Welborn said, citing cities such as Lusaka in Zambia, Accra in Ghana, Lagos in Nigeria and Nairobi in Kenya.

"There is a lot of Gulf money looking for a home in Africa. I'll suggest you'll now see more going into sub-Saharan Africa," he said.