Dubai: Special Report - Location, location, location

A perfect geographical position and a very favourable tax regime have helped turn the city-state into a byword for luxury.

by Virginia Blackburn
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

As the world becomes ever smaller, so the competition to attract new residents to the world's premier locations becomes ever more intense.

Dubai has been a late starter in the game, beginning its bid to welcome serious money in only the last decade, but it has made extraordinary progress.

In the last four years, property prices have risen by 50%-200%, the population has soared and is continuing to do so, while the city-state has turned itself into a byword for such luxury that it boasts the Burj Al Arab, the world's only seven-star hotel.

Indeed, five-star luxury is now commonplace, not only among hotels, but in the properties coming on to the market, too. Luxury hotel groups such as Kempinsky and Fairmont are developing major residential sites that will have all the facilities of the most luxurious hotels, including pools and spas, to say nothing of exceptionally high standards of construction.

Not bad for a 25-mile stretch of sand approximately the size of Luxembourg, nestling on the sands of the Persian Gulf.

Dubai's emergence as a world-class destination is almost entirely down to its current ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, and his father, the late Sheikh Rashid, before him. Sheikh Mohammed, an enlightened man who operates more as a CEO than an absolute ruler, realised that Dubai has one disadvantage for a Middle Eastern country: it doesn't have very much oil - indeed, crude oil sales make up only about 7% of the gross national product. However, as one of the seven United Arab Emirates, what it does have is location.

Dubai is halfway between East and West, and provides a portal to the rest of the Middle East; most crucially, as a focal point between Europe, Asia and Africa, it has a catchment area of 1.5 billion people only 120 minutes away by air. That, combined with a good climate and a very favourable tax regime, has made it a huge draw.

And population growth is beginning to reflect just how well Dubai is doing. Although it has only 150,000 indigenous residents, it boasts a population of 1.4 million and the royal family aims to increase that to 2.2 million by 2010. Of the current population, 200,000 are from Europe, with the British the biggest expat community, numbering about 120,000.

Dubai attracts huge interest from Europe and the Far East, with three types of buyer: people relocating permanently, people who will be working in Dubai for a limited time and who wish to buy as an investment, and those who see it purely in investment terms or as an ideal location for a second home.

"We are seeing a great deal of interest from international buyers," says Jeremy Rollason of estate agent Savills, which has an office in Dubai. "Up to 90% of our clients are buying not exactly speculatively as such, but because they believe Dubai still has a long way to go. It's becoming a world-class destination and it's still safe, accessible and good value. At the moment, we see the greatest capital growth potential in the two newest Palms (offshore artificial islands - see below)."

Alex Upson of property consultant Cluttons, which also has a presence in the Gulf, agrees. "It is appealing both as a holiday destination and to do business," he says. "It has year-round sunshine and international standards of hospitality. It has a relaxed tax regime and is especially good as a centre for import/export businesses, as there are no import duties."

Of course, it is not possible for foreigners to buy up property absolutely everywhere in Dubai: they are limited to specific sites. But this is an advance in itself as, until 2002, foreigners were not allowed to own land in Dubai at all. That changed when Sheikh Mohammed brought in the Foreign Ownership Law, which allows foreigners to own freehold or 99-year leasehold sites within Foreign Ownership Designated zones.

Every development that is being promoted to foreigners, including the World, the Palms and myriad others, lies within one of these zones. The law came into force in March of this year, but applies retroactively to anyone who has bought a property in Dubai since 2002.

And the choice of where to buy is extensive. "The premier locations depend on what you are in Dubai for," says Rollason.

"If you are living out there and want to be close to the office, then the Dubai International Financial Centre and Emirates Towers are both good options. Anywhere close to the Sheikh Zayed Road, an arterial route running east to west, is suitable.

"For second homes or investment properties, the waterfront at Jumeirah Beach has all but sold out, which means you are buying in the secondhand market there now. The Dubai Marina and the newer Palm developments are the places to look."

Other developments, and there are a great many of them, include Emirates Hills, Arabian Ranches and the Burj Dubai, which will be a mixed commercial and residential area.

Has the market become overheated? Only time will tell. The eye-watering increases in property prices over the past four years - up to 200% - will almost certainly not continue, but market experts believe prices will continue to rise at between 10% and 15% a year, not least given the expected population growth. And with each new development come ever greater innovation and showmanship.

"In Dubai, it's all about showboating," says Rollason. "Every developer wants to build the biggest, the best, the fastest - if they think they can do it, they can. Just when you think they can't go any farther, they jump one step ahead again."


The World is a group of 300 islands, in a zone four miles wide and three miles long, arranged in the shape of the globe's countries, two and a half miles out into the Persian Gulf and built by Nakheel, Sheikh Mohammed's company. The islets range in size from three acres up to 12, and can be reached only by boat or helicopter. Buyers will have to install their own sewage and power systems.

Great Britain has already been sold for £15 million, reputedly to Richard Branson, although no one will confirm that. Other interested parties are rumoured to include Michael Jackson, Bill Clinton and Michael Schumacher.

The most expensive island is Australia, for sale at £28 million. Neither Israel nor Palestine feature in the development.

Nakheel is also building the three Palm developments, the first and smallest of which, Palm-Jumeirah (left), is the best known. Construction began in 2001 and is expected to be completed next year. It is made up of islands in the shape of a palm tree, as are the other two Palms, and there are plans to construct three five-star luxury hotels on the site. After a visit to Dubai in 2002, members of the England football team, including David Beckham, Joe Cole, Ashley Cole and Gary Neville, bought homes on the site for £600,000 each: they are now worth about £1.9 million.

The other two Palms, Palm-Jebel Ali and Palm-Deira, will follow the same design but on a bigger scale; the latter, due to be completed in 2009, will be the largest of the Palms.


The choice when buying in Dubai is between villas and apartments: families tend to go for the former, and singletons and young couples the latter. Villas are more in demand, as there are fewer available than apartments.

Most villas do not have sea views: the exception is on the Palm developments, where prices start at over £1 million. Elsewhere in Dubai, a modest two-bedroom villa would start at about £200,000. An upmarket detached villa in view of, say, a golf course or lake would cost about £400,000. The sky is the limit as far as the top prices are concerned.

A one-bedroom, 800 sq ft apartment in the Marina starts at £120,000, rising to £175,000 for a two-bed, 1,200 sq ft property and about £300,000 for a three-bed, 1,600 sq ft flat. Away from the hot spots, it is still possible to find apartments for as little as £40,000, although they are not likely to be in a good location or have a decent view.


The world's first underwater luxury hotel is currently under construction in Dubai. Built by Crescent Hydropolis Resorts and designed by German architect Joachim Hauser, the $500 million Hydropolis hotel will have 220 suites sitting on the floor of the Persian Gulf, 66 feet below the surface.

Work on Dubailand, which will be the world's largest amusement/theme park and twice the size of Florida's Disney World, began last year. Scheduled to be built in four phases, with final completion in 2020, the park will contain an Arabian theme park, Aviation World, Dinosaur World, Motor Racing World, Pharaohs' theme park and a good deal else.

Ski Dubai is the first indoor ski resort in the Middle East. The 22,500 sq m resort has five runs varying in difficulty, the most advanced being 400 metres long with a fall of over 60 metres. It also has a snow park, and the entire complex will be covered in snow (machine-made) all year round.

The Dubai Tower, or Burj Dubai, is set to be the world's tallest building at more than than 800 metres and with about 160 floors. Designed by Chicago architect Adrian Smith, the tower, which should be finished in 2010, is made up of spirals. "In Islamic architecture, this symbolises ascending towards the heavens," says Smith.

Nestling at the foot of Burj Dubai will be the Dubai Mall, the world's largest shopping centre. With a total of 9 million sq ft to fill, the site will contain an artificial lake, the largest gold souk in the world and 1 million sq ft of fashion. Dubai already has an annual shopping festival, as well as more than 40 malls.

With six runways, Dubai's Jebel Ali international airport will snatch the title of biggest airport in the world from London's Heathrow. It will be able to handle more than 120 million passengers and 12 million tonnes of cargo a year.

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