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Sharm el-Sheikh rumbles with grand promises of the international elite

On the shores of the Red Sea, something is rumbling. It's not the helicopter gunships orbiting the skies or the special forces troops - their faces obscured behind thick balaclavas and dark goggles - that patrol the sun-kissed streets. The rumble is emanating from inside Sharm el-Sheikh's international congress centre, where business titans and heads of state are slapping backs and breaking bread, leaving a trail of Danish pastry crumbs in their wake.

It's the rumble that accompanies the corporate makeover of a nation, and there are many - in Egypt and beyond its borders - hoping that it will prove loud enough to drown out this country's rival soundtracks of protest, resistance and dissent. These days the corridors of counter-revolution are busier than ever, and it is international elites who are making most of the noise.

The Egyptian Economic Development Conference, which attracted more than 1,700 investors, government officials and consultancy experts - plus Tony Blair - to the southern Sinai this past weekend, was billed as a national coming-out party: the moment when this ancient country would finally move beyond its moody adolescent years of revolutionary upheaval and join the grown-up world of western modernity, where markets are sovereign, demonstrations are meaningless and acts of state violence are deemed unsuitable topics for conversation in polite society.

"The images that have been coming out of this part of the world have been, by the nature of media, unrepresentative of what's happening on the ground," explained Ahmed Heikal, the CEO and founder of Qalaa Holdings, one of the largest private investment companies in the Middle East. "We want to convey the normal, more representative part of the story, which is that Egypt is open for business."

There is nothing remotely representative about a palatial conference held entirely inside a bubble, beyond which an armed insurgency is raging in northern Sinai, an average of four bombs a week are exploding in Cairo, and a third of young children nationally are afflicted by malnutrition. But it is true that, under President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, Egypt is very much open for business. New investment and bankruptcy laws will grant blanket immunity to investors and public officials when handling state funds, loosen restrictions on public assets being handed to the private sector free of charge, and enable foreign companies to abandon privatised projects virtually without penalty if they so choose. Entire infrastructure classes are being lined up for takeover by public-private partnerships; meanwhile corporate and top-end personal income taxes are being cut, and workers' ability to strike restricted.

The narrative at the conference has been that this is all so very new. From the plenary hall stage to the bustling bilateral meeting rooms, the sponsored lunch tables to the specially commissioned 'Marketplace' smartphone app - where 'leaders and game-changers' can arrange to come together for 'brain dates', a sort of neoliberal Tinder - there is an all-pervasive aura of buoyant razzmatazz, as if nobody can quite believe how fresh and positive Sisi's Egypt feels.

Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, was among the first to pay homage to the reform-minded credentials of a man responsible for what Human Rights Watch (whose website was blocked on the conference WiFi network) has labelled one of the largest state massacres of demonstrators in modern history; John Kerry, the US secretary of state, Philip Hammond, the UK foreign secretary, and Blair all followed suit as the weekend progressed.

But memories are short. A foreign-investment led, GDP-growth orientated economic model was the hallmark of Mubarak's dictatorship and received glowing approval from the IMF. The outcome was epic corruption, eye-watering riches for a crony capitalist class at the top and immiseration for everyone else; Bread, Freedom, Social Justice was the revolution's slogan, though none of Egypt's post-Mubarak regimes - from the junta that took power immediately after the January 2011 uprising, to the short-lived, aggressively free-market government of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, to the new military autocracy - have bothered to take the latter demand seriously. The Brotherhood declared last week that Egypt is not for sale, forgetting that exactly the same multinational corporations currently signing deals in Sharm el-Sheikh were fawned over and flogged to by Morsi as well. At Egypt's economic summit, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Recordings allegedly implicate Egypt's president in judicial interference, secret bank transfers from other countries and a conspiracy against Mohamed Morsi

In reality, the conference is about the Egyptian military showcasing a business-as-usual vision for the future, one in which Gulf and western capital works in partnership with senior generals to carve up and commodify the country, and where Egypt's identity - contested so dramatically in the streets over recent years - is curated solely and safely from the top. But Sisi could not pull off such a feat on his own. Enter an interconnected grid of international consultancies and high-level public relations agencies that specialize in subtly repositioning a nation's image.

The event was produced by Richard Attias & Associates (RAA), a strategic consulting firm whose executive chairman formerly had a role in producing the annual World Economic Forum in Davos. RAA shares its London headquarters with Global Counsel, the lobbying firm run by former Labour minister Peter Mandelson - who publicly defended Gamal Mubarak, son of the president, when the revolution first began. Mandelson is also a chairman and international representative of Lazard, the financial consultancy outfit advising Sisi's government on economic policy. RAA and Global Counsel are both affiliates of WPP, the world's largest advertising company. Its CEO, Sir Martin Sorrell, was a keynote speaker at the conference. Blair, revealed by the Guardian last year to be advising President Sisi as part of an Emirates-funded consultancy programme, was another star turn on the stage.

Egypt tightening visa rule for individual visitors

Egypt is tightening rules for visas by requiring individual visitors to obtain them at embassies instead of on arrival at Egyptian airports, the Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday, a move that may make it harder to revive the tourism industry.

Security sources, however, said the decision arose from a need to give intelligence services more time to assess individuals who want to visit Egypt, where security has suffered from an Islamist insurgency centered in the Sinai region.

"The system remains unchanged for tourist groups which can obtain visas at airports, but individuals have to get a prior visa from embassies," Foreign Ministry spokesman Badr Abdelatty said.

The changes will take effect on May 15, said Rasha Azaizi, the tourism minister's media adviser. "The decision will have a small effect... The industry depends on the large groups brought in by tour operators," she told Reuters.

Egypt's economy has been hammered by a precipitous fall in tourist visitors and a lack of foreign investment because of protracted political upheaval since the 2011 popular uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

Reviving the tourist sector is central to efforts to shore up state coffers in a country which once attracted huge numbers of visitors to ancient sites like the pyramids, Luxor and Aswan along the Nile, and Red Sea resorts.

Security sources said another reason for the change in visa rules was to put stronger controls on visits by Western human rights activists who have been highly critical of Egypt's tough crackdown on Islamists and liberal activists.

Egypt hopes to generate $20 billion in revenue from tourism by 2020 by attracting 20 million visitors, new Tourism Minister Khaled Ramy told Reuters on Sunday at an international investment conference in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh.

More than 14.7 million tourists visited Egypt in 2010. That dropped to 9.8 million in 2011, rose the following year to 11.5 million but shrank back to about 10 million last year.

Travco plans major tourism projects in Egypt

Travco Group plans to establish a number of hotel and tourism projects in Egypt to take advantage of the growing tourism sector in the country, a report said.

Chairman of Travco Group International Hamed El Chiaty said was quoted by Daily News Egypt as saying that the investment cost of the hotels to be established this year will be EGP750 million ($98 million) and the cost of the hotels to be built in the coming years EGP3 billion.

El Chiaty said the group will establish two new hotels this year in Sharm El-Sheikh and Hurghada, to add over 1,100 guest rooms and suites to its capacity in Egypt with total capacity reaching 14,000 guest rooms. Nine other hotel projects are in the pipeline to be established in Sharm El-Sheikh, Soma Bay in Hurghada, Sahl Hasheesh, Safaga and Marsa Alam.

The company is also about to launch phase 2 of Almaza Bay residential project on the North Coast of Egypt. The entire development extends over an area of 6.5 million sq m and currently includes five up and running hotels, 400 residential units together with multiple leisure facilities. Further development plans include two new five-star hotels and nearly 2,000 residential units in future phases of the project.

Travco Properties aims to develop new standards through building a high-quality resort villages where visitors as well as residents can enjoy the unique location on the North Coast, said El Chiaty. El Chiaty said the time is right for promoting the Egyptian's tourism product using modern methods in order to increase Egypt's share in the global tourism market with the aim of reaching 30 million tourists over the next few years, the report said.

He said the recently-concluded Economic Summit is a positive indicator of the Egyptian economy's recovery, and proves a reassurance to tourists and tour organisers.

El Chiaty said the Sonata development, a project in the economic housing sector in 6th of October City, is in the late stages of development and details will be unveiled soon.

Bahrain pledges to build 3,000 new homes

Bahrain's housing ministry has signed a BD276 million ($732 million) deal with a developer to build 3,000 new homes.

The new homes are intended for citizens on the social housing waiting list and will be built on 1.2 square metres of reclaimed land off the north coast of Muharraq, Gulf Daily News reported.

The developer, Diyar Al Muharraq, will finance the project's construction with support from Kuwait Finance House - Bahrain, the newspaper said.

Under the deal, the housing minister will buy the homes from the developer once completed and manage them under its social housing budget.

Dubai unveils big affordable housing plan

Dubai Municipality is working on a plan to build affordable houses in selected areas of the UAE emirate, mainly targeted at those earning between Dh3,000 and Dh10,000 ($817 and $2,721) per month, said a report, citing a senior official.

The civic body has already allocated more than 100 hectares of land for the purpose.

"In just three areas - Muhaisnah 4, Al Qouz 3 and 4 - we have allocated over 100 hectares for affordable housing and that will take up more than 50,000 people," Abdulla Mohammed Rafia, the assistant director general for engineering and planning sector, Dubai Municipality told Emirates 24|7 in an exclusive interview.

"Usually in any city, you will have to provide between 15 and 20 per cent of the total housing units in the affordable range and if you don't then you will have that kind of influx of people coming in and going out every morning and evening," stated Rafia.

The municipality has plans to develop similar housing projects in other areas of Dubai, he added.

Dubai Airports reveals aggressive expansion plans

At the Future of Borders International Conference taking place in Dubai, CEO, Dubai Airports, Paul Griffiths highlighted that due to demand and growth, the company, which operates Dubai International and Al Maktoum International in Dubai World Central, has expansion plans in the pipeline.

"Our revised projections for 2020 now exceed 126 million passengers. By 2030, we expect to have around 200 million passengers traffic," Griffiths explained during his presentation entitled 'Building the Future'.

"This (the growth projections) is without the availability of further infrastructure development or space to build at Dubai International. We will have to come up with other solutions to satisfy Dubai's continued thirst for growth. In Dubai, we are building, not talking about building. An unwavering vision to build not just an airport, but an engine of economic growth, [is] vital to the growth of the city."

Dubai International is currently one of the world's busiest airports for international passengers. Al Maktoum International Airport in DWC, which presently has five to seven million passengers capacity, welcomed 845,046 passengers passing through its gates in its first full year of operations in 2014.

DWC will have a passenger capacity of 220 million on completion of its second phase. The first phase of $32 billion dollar expansion of DWC is set enable the facility to accommodate 120 million passengers on completion over the next six to eight years. Al Maktoum International is expected to be 10 times larger than the site of Dubai International, making it the world's largest airport and the world's largest intercontinental hub.

The $7.8 billion investment will to lead to ultimate capacity of 100 million passengers at Dubai International. Last year, the facility recorded 70.4 million passengers, an increase of 6.1 per cent and this year it is expected to accommodate 79 million passengers.

In 2013, aviation contributed $26.7 billion to the economy of Dubai - or 27 per cent of the emirate's GDP. Approximately 416,500 people rely on aviation activities for their livelihood which works out to 27 per cent of the total workforce in Dubai.

By 2030, the aviation's contribution to the Dubai economy is expected to increase to $88 billion - more than three times the 2013 figure.

Griffiths further noted that by 2030, more than one in three of the workforce will be employed by the aviation industry.

"This year, we will open Concourse D [at Dubai International], home to the airport's overseas airline partners. The facility, with 17 additional gates, will be able to handle 15 million passengers and will be linked to Terminal 1 via an Automated People Mover (APM)," he explained.

"Parallel developments of additional remote stands and airspace efficiency will help push out as far as possible the point at which it becomes ex-growth. Our $7.8 billion investment will lead to an ultimate capacity of 100 million. That takes into account the increased passenger/flight ratio driven by Emirates Airline's expanding fleet of A380s. But that, I'm afraid, is what that entire airfield will handle. So again, growth is pushing us to expand," he concluded.

Abu Dhabi's property market remains buoyant

The real estate market in Abu Dhabi, UAE, will continue to remain buoyant in 2015 due to its strong growth potential and rise in demand for luxury properties, said international property agency Chestertons.

"There are over 200,000 residential units in Abu Dhabi and nearly 5,000 are expected to be delivered in 2015. There are several locations in Abu Dhabi but places like Al Raha Beach in particular with the upcoming world-class infrastructure facilities will surely be part of an investor's checklist," said Simon Gray, the managing director for Chestertons Middle East and North Africa (Mena).

According to him, furnished apartments are popular and demand is high currently in the residential market.

"Prices, however, are stabilising with villa prices remaining the same during the last quarter. Reem Island is also a potential place to invest as the surrounding infrastructure development is taking shape," noted Gray.

"During 2014, the luxury properties have accounted for 27 per cent of total sales transactions amounting to Dh8 billion ($2.1 billion) in the ready property market. There has been a substantial investor interest for luxury properties in the UAE, especially Dubai and Abu Dhabi," he stated.

Over the last few years, Abu Dhabi has always featured among the top investment destinations with regard to luxury properties, said the top real estate expert.

"Investors are keen on parking their funds with reputed developers who have completed their projects or are on the verge of completion. There is also a tremendous amount of interest in off-plan luxury properties," observed Robin Teh, the country manager for Chestertons Mena.

Chestertons with its Middle Eastern headquarters in Dubai offers a full range of property services, including residential and commercial sales and leasing together with professional property valuation and property management services.

The company is now expanding operations in the capital to serve Abu Dhabi-based investors.

"We are gearing up to tap into this growth market as many people choose to make Abu Dhabi their home. We decided to expand in the capital to address this growing demand for quality properties," stated Simon.

"We aim to further consolidate our position as the leading international property consultancy in the market, combining our long-standing global industry knowledge and the in-depth expertise of our local staff, he added.

Robin said the luxury segment was always in demand in the UAE due to the high-level of affluence in the region.

"Abu Dhabi has now become a popular investment destination with this category of investors due to lifestyle choices it offers today. The luxury segment is very popular with cash buyers, who have invested significantly in these projects particularly off-plan properties," stated the official.

"Another reason for the rise in demand of luxury properties is the unrest in the Middle East region and the safe haven status of the UAE. Stock for luxury properties is absorbed quickly by these investors," he added.-TradeArabia News Service

Qatar plans to build 55 'wi-fi' parks

Qatar municipal officials are planning to build 55 new parks across the country with free wi-fi services being extended to these facilities, said a report.

The Public Parks Department at the Ministry of Municipality and Urban Planning said work has already started on two public parks which are expected to open over the next few weeks, reported The Peninsula.

The department is co-ordinating with the Supreme Council for Information and Technology (ictQatar) to extend the free internet services in all public parks in the country, the report added.

Qatar's Lusail City moves forward on infrastructure plans with new contracts

The development of the transportation links for Lusail City appears to be taking share, with recent announcements of separate contracts to two Malaysia-based firms for constructing roads, light-rail stations, car parks and a suspended visitors' center and cable car.

In a statement to the Malaysian stock exchange Bursa Malaysia, construction firm WCT Holdings Bhd said it had secured a RM1.2 billion (QR1.17 billion) contract from Lusail Real Estate Development Co., as a 70:30 joint venture with Qatar-based Al Ali Projects Co.

The scope of works for the contract includes construction of the commercial boulevard, main and internal roads, utilities, five small-sized light-rail transit stations and four two-level underground car parks, according to Malaysian newspaper The Star.

All construction on the project, which is the biggest deal for the company in two years, is expected to be complete by summer 2017, WCT said.

The firm has been involved in several projects in Qatar and the Gulf previously, including the construction and maintenance for the new Ministry of Interior headquarters in Doha, worth QR1.59 billion.

It was also responsible for building the Yas Marina Yacht Club and Formula 1 circuit in Abu Dhabi, as well as a BD156 million project to build Bahrain City Center complex with a shopping mall, hotel, theme park, water park and multiplex cinema.

Expressway arches

In a separate announcement, Eversendai Qatar said it has secured a RM269.2 million (QR263 million) for the construction of the Al Wahda Arches and visitors' center which are part of the Lusail Expressway plans.

The QR3.5 billion project, led by public works authority Ashghal and with main contractor Hyundai, will link Doha's business district of Dafna/West Bay with Lusail.


Construction of Lusail Expressway.

The 5.3 km route along Al Istiqlal Road will include four highway lanes with additional filter lanes, three large interchanges and connections with the Pearl-Qatar, Katara and Lusail City, according to Ashghal.

"Extensive artscape" along the length of the road will be a key feature, with the entire project projected for completion by mid-2017.

New inflation figures for Qatar hint at expensive year for tenants

The cost of living in Qatar remained largely the same from January to February, though increases in housing and other categories suggest that 2015 may be another expensive year for residents who rent their accommodations.

The consumer price index increased a modest 0.1 percent last month compared to January, according to the latest consumer inflation report from the Ministry of Development Planning and Statistics.

This was primarily due to a 0.74-percent monthly rise in the cost of housing, water and electricity, which makes up the largest share of most household's expenses.

That's equal to or higher than the comparable increases in 11 of the past 13 months, although a methodology change by the ministry means the figures are not perfectly equivalent.

February's figures hint at the possibility of 2015 being another costly year with residents who already grappling with rapidly rising residential rents.

If housing prices continue to climb at last month's pace for the rest of the year, tenants would face an 8.8 percent annual rise in accommodation costs.

That would outstrip last year's 7.3 percent increase in the comparable basket of rents, fuel and energy.

Land speculation

There are two related factors that are primarily responsible for the spiraling escalation in housing prices.

Firstly, Qatar's population continues to grow by leaps and bounds, and the country's real estate developers are failing to construct a sufficient number of new homes to keep pace. The shortage is particularly acute in the low and mid-range market.

Secondly, rental rates are correlated to the price of land, which has been rising rapidly.

A recent report from the Institute of International Finance - a global group of banks, insurance companies and other organizations - suggested this has been caused in part by property owners looking to profit from Qatar's development boom and hints relief may be on the horizon:

"Land prices, up by 93 percent in 2014, have been driven by speculative demand with the increase in government project execution. A recent decree governing real estate expropriation for the public benefit could dampen this activity."

Pricier clothes, cheaper transport

Other categories of consumer goods that showed a month-over-month price increase in February were clothing and footwear (0.49 percent); furnishings and household equipment (0.38 percent); and food and beverages (0.2 percent).

By contrast, the prices of goods in several other categories registered a decline and helped slow the increase in the cost of living. This includes transportation (-0.93 percent); restaurants and hotels (-0.1 percent); and miscellaneous goods and services (-0.4 percent).

The costs of healthcare and education - both of which are tightly controlled by the government - were flat in February, as were the costs of communication services, tobacco and recreation and culture.

The consumer price index is calculated by comparing the cost of an average basket of goods purchased by residents in a typical month.

Officials recently readjusted that basket of goods to reflect changing consumption patterns. Additionally, the base year against which current prices are compared was also changed.

However, the ministry has not released recalculated figures using its new methodology for 2014, preventing year-over-year comparisons that help put monthly changes in context by showing trends and eliminating seasonal variability.

City Centre Muscat to open 60 new outlets

City Centre Muscat, the largest lifestyle shopping destination in Oman, plans to open 60 new outlets of international brands, including 12 high profile brands making their debut in the Sultanate.

This comes as part of phase two of the RO27 million ($70 million) 10,000-sq-m redevelopment plan of the mall, owned and operated by Majid Al Futtaim, a leading shopping mall, retail, and leisure pioneer across Mena.

The new brands include Virgin Megastore, featuring the newest gadgets and technologies and high-street brands Bershka, American Eagle and Koton.

F&F, New Look, Guess Accessories, Lovisa, and Pandora jewellery; as well as handmade cosmetics Lush will also be coming to Oman for the first time.

The mall will also open a new dining zone with five new casual-dining restaurants offering a variety of international cuisines including the Turkish restaurant, Kosibasi.

"A diverse range of retailers have recognized the mall's status as the lifestyle destination in Oman and are keen to be a part of our expansion," said Husam Al Mandhari, senior mall manager for City Centre Muscat.

"After observing increases in both footfall and sales figures in 2014, and now by welcoming 60 additional new shopping outlets in 2015, we are confident that Majid Al Futtaim's investments in City Centre Muscat will continue to bring robust growth in the years to come.

"As part of our objective to create great moments for everyone, every day, we welcome these high-profile international brands to offer visitors an even wider array of choices and an enhanced shopping, dining and entertainment experience," Al Mandhari added.

City Centre Muscat's first phase of redevelopment was completed with the launch of a 10-screen VOX Cinemas, the renovation of Magic Planet and the mall's food court dining area.

The mall has also completed a new car park structure accommodating 700 vehicles. - TradeArabia News Service

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