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Oman 2014 | REAL ESTATE & CONSTRUCTION | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Benjamin Cullum, General Manager of Hamptons International & Partners LLC, on the company's position in the market, letting prices, and tourist complexes.

Benjamin Cullum
BIOGRAPHY
Benjamin Cullum has been General Manager of Hamptons International & Partners LLC since 2011. Previously, he worked for Cluttons as the Head of Valuation in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. He is a Member of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and received his MSc in Real Estate Management and Valuation from the University of Reading.

Could you tell me about Hampton's position in the Omani market?

We are a full service real estate consultancy. Hamptons was set up in Oman in the middle of 2000, when the global economy was looking brighter. The oil price was increasing at that stage, and it was a good economy to enter. Oman was the first foray into the Middle East for Hamptons. Our background in the UK was estate-agency-led, and that was a natural fit coming into Oman. However, it was very clear early on that there was a big gap in professional advisory services. It was very important for us to keep raising the bar for the real estate industry to bring in more professional feasibility work and valuations. From a very early stage, this was a key target for Hamptons. That is where we remain positioned; agency and professional divisions with our property management department in between, which has elements of both when advising clients. Our departments are not split into residential or commercial, as one tends to find in Europe; there are departments based on lettings, sales, valuation, strategic consultancy, and property management. Technically, if you look at our how our fees are split or our time taken up, it is not far off 50-50 between the two broad sectors of residential and commercial.

Will the trend of young, employed Omanis driving up letting prices continue?

I am not sure that there is a trend borne from young employed Omanis. It is true that there is a very young demographic, as there are in many of the GCC countries, and more pressure is being put on residential stock. However, the ability for a number of young Omanis to afford to buy or rent is questionable. The rental market is not as common in the Omani population—everybody wants to buy a house or land for a villa. Clearly, the ability to afford that and leverage yourself is quite difficult. People simply cannot afford the repayments of the mortgages or the amount of equity that is required to get a mortgage. Linking to that, Islamic banking is very new to the market and the expectation is that there are a number of unbanked people that will not bank conventionally and not borrow money conventionally; however, they are very keen to do so from an Islamic institution. Therefore, there is an expectation that the first six to 12 months of Islamic banking here will be very busy for the market, but what happens beyond that is unknown. There is enormous demand, but there is a disconnect with the affordability. The only thing that can happen with that pressure is sellers start reducing their prices. We are not at that pressure point yet, and Islamic banking will hold off that pressure point for a bit longer, but it needs to happen.

Will the trend of integrated tourist complexes (ITCs) continue, and is that an opportunity for Hamptons?

Yes, it is certainly an opportunity for Hamptons and our competitors. There are impressive fees to be earned from ITCs, whether from initial sales, renting, or further sales. What has happened with ITCs is that a lot of the re-sales and the new sales are to local Omanis who are looking for investment properties. The difficulties with ITCs in one sense, from a valuation perspective, is that the expected yields are really too low for the European market. You are looking at a villa where the net yield will be something like 4%. Currently, ITCs do not provide a genuine expectation of rapid capital growth in the market. From this bland perspective, ITCs as investments are, at the moment, slightly overpriced. However, the pride of private ownership is deeply ingrained in the psyche throughout the GCC and there is clearly a feeling that the quality of the properties within ITC projects guarantee future stability. ITCs are important to the market, and the Ministry of Tourism has granted land for a number of locations throughout Oman for ITC projects. The challenge for a lot of these projects is in the financing aspect, as many of these large-scale developments require the installation of massive infrastructure in the early days of the development. The infrastructure is costly and provides no immediate return on investment. That comes with future sales.