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For Qatari residents: Do you prefer a summer or winter World Cup 2022?

Finding a home in Qatar

Written by  Author |   Fri, 11 July 2014 09:09

"Benchmark International's enterprising move to build homes for Qataris in Al Wa'ab City is opening doors to fill important housing market demands"   
Al Wa'ab City, one of the largest privately-owned mixed-use real estate developments in Qatar, celebrated the completion of Phase 1 for its luxurious Nour Al Wa'ab villas through a high profile event that took place on March 10, 2014 during a high profile event attended by Sheikha Hanadi Bint Nasser Al Thani, the project's CEO, with more than 200 dignitaries and guests.

Sheikha Al Thani, said, "Tonight we mark the first milestone of our journey to achieve the vision for Al Wa`ab City to become one of Qatar's most distinguished developments. Our partnership with Benchmark International has been a cornerstone in reviving the project and realigning it with its original vision.".
In May 2012, Al Wa'ab City announced the appointment of Benchmark International as its Development Managers on the strength of its managing iconic developments across the Mena region. 

Al Wa'ab City will be home to more than 9,000 people, offering a safe and well maintained environment with one of the lowest density ratios of any major development around the city of Doha.  It brings a well studied mix of exciting propositions for residents, guests and the community, and offers genuine value to investors, stakeholders, residents and guests alike.

At the event, Al Wa'ab City confirmed the launch of the next phases of Nour Al Wa'ab villas, with delivery scheduled in phases till the first quarter of 2015. In total, 92 of the premium Nour Al Wa'ab villas are planned, each featuring an area of 850 square meters, high quality finishes, fixtures, five master bedrooms, internal elevators, three car garages and a private garden and a swimming pool.

Al Wa'ab City also confirmed that 43 of its smaller Janayin Al Wa'ab villas are open for corporate sales and leasing. Janayin Al Wa'ab consists of 181 distinct, four-bedroom properties, with an area of 540 square meters each, two car garages, and offering a contemporary living environment with a subtle hint of Arabian architecture and modern quality finishes. 

The successful completion of this first phase follows a rather rocky start to the project. Al Wa'ab City planning started in 2005 and in 2008 about 2 billion Qatari riyals went into major infrastructure and foundation work for buildings. However the project was stalled for two years due to the international financial crisis and with it the realization that master plans had to be rethought. Why Qatar Magazine conducted a recent interview with Dr. Bassim Halaby, CEO of Benchmark International, to shed light on the milestone and expand on the challenges and opportunities facing this landmark development.   

1- Why is this an important milestone in the overall Wa'ab City project?
The project was celebrated by all stakeholders in Qatar, because it is the largest privately owned development in Doha, comprising 1.1 million m2 of land plus 1.2 million m2 of build up area. The fact that this project underwent many ups and downs, getting the first phase out was cause for celebration as it announces that the project was back on track, seeing the light again and therefore, the ability to deliver on the original vision was now a possibility. It is a mark that private entrepreneurship in Qatar's real estate market is a possibility, at the level of large scale projects, not only for large institutions or publically owned companies.
When you start delivering a project, you feel a boost of energy having been able to overcome difficult and create a product that's appreciated from the market, and as the first phase was sold in 10 days, it meant that the product, location and price were right.

2- Is the original vision realigned with current realities?
Every developer has his own way of approaching a project and creating value. So there is no black and white and therefore I cannot look back at what went wrong, but I can always look at value creation and whether it was in line with the market. From the first moment we came, out vision was that the location was correct, the fundamentals were right and all that was needed was to revise the master plan, and look at what can be amended to enhance the value.  A master plan has to have some flexibility in order to keep capitalizing on value as things change.  Neighborhoods, since 2005, have grown, mushroomed, been populated, therefore you have a critical mass around the project to service it. Everyone is looking forward to be part of the Al Wa'ab city area, as it is a prominent residential area for Qataris. The fact that we are creating a mixed-use area will further enhance it and not disturb the value of the single dwelling. Normally, these work against each other. It is a very tricky business trying to find harmony between a high rise, single dwelling, office or retail. We were able to achieve that. It is not only a management issue, but a management vision, and when we look at finances, yes, there were some decisions that were made at that time, which made sense in 2007, to use all the money to build the project in one go when it should have been taken in phases, slowly creating community awareness and foothold, and more knowledge about the project. This was a lesson learned. Now we are working on different phases, and able to deliver on proper timetables.

3- What are some of the remaining obstacles or challenges, if any, facing this mega project?
A project this size will always face obstacles. It will house close to 10 thousand people with market dynamics changing, Doha as a city growing, new players coming in, more malls being built, and more projects coming online so the challenge is not only internal but also external. You have to deal with market realities and your own constraints at the level of finance, design, execution, and others and it is the ability of the developer to resolve them along the way. We believe that getting the project back on track was a major hurdle that we were able to overcome, so we now deal with day to day issues. This project was built on a fast track basis and therefore, if you go and ask the municipality about regulations for completion certificates, they have to find the right policy for that, since not everything is stated in their own rule book.  Even when you go change the master plan due to a design modification, the ministry of municipality and urban planning has to create an understanding of how to change an approved master plan in order for it to make sense for the future, which involves a delay element.   One of the obstacles that everyone is dealing with is lack of labor. When faced shortages of labor, one has to hedge for time delays and other cost perspectives when you work with razor thin margins, so the moment you change your mind, you create a series of unforeseen obstacles. 

4- What makes al Wa'ab City a unique residential development as compared to other major residential or mixed-use projects in Qatar?
Real estate is about location location location. Talking about the mixed- use development at Al Wa'ab, we have within a 10-15 min walking distance 2400 apartments, 300 villas, various shops and F&B on an internal street servicing all residents and accessible by pedestrian paths or bikes, and soft transportation in addition to 27000 m2  of mall space.  Yet it's all disconnected from the project, without creating an encumberment from truck service, and loading decks thus creating no noise or pollution.  It's hard to compare mixed-use projects unless we are talking projects in the same vicinities and the basis for comparison today lies in the facts about mixed uses, the level of amenities, the quality of the build environment and the kind of lifestyle you are creating for end users. So it's an introverted look at the project rather than a holistic look. Al Wa'ab area is frequented and liked by many and where there are major transport corridors, easy access and egress, a set of schools, a regional mall and an internal community mall. In the revised master plan, we created a new boulevard for F&B and kids areas, bike paths and trails for pedestrians, creating a sense of belonging for residents. This all makes it unique. However, I am sure that other projects, like Msheireb, the Pearl, and others have created their own uniqueness. 

5- Noor Al Wa'ab are very high end villas? What is the price tag placed on these villas and who is the target audience?
Yes very high end in scale, size, and finishes. the price tag of a villa today starts at 10 million QAR and goes up to 14 million QAR. The developer in the Qatari market has always been developing villas for rent not for sale. The taste for Qataris is very personal and unique. We built villas for the general public who would come in and do alterations to custom make them according to their own taste, but who also accepted the quality and layout, and associated amenities such as gardens, services for drivers and maid, pool and play areas.  This has been skeptically accepted in the beginning and widely appreciated today.

6- Will Janayin Al Wa'ab become the place of residence for business and corporate entities?
Janayin al Wa'ab is a mid scale project for small Qatari families or newlyweds. It will take time before the Qatari market adopts the 550 m2 villa size.. That's why these will be on yearly short term leases. Our first 43 villas have been rented out with a July moving in date, but it's mixed rentals for corporations and individuals, and with 140 more villas coming into the market, the current situation will promote a lively community that will encourage buyers to own some of these.

7- How has your previous experience as Chief Planner for the city of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Senior Consultant to Merrill Lynch and the World Bank, as well as Chief Planner for the city of Boston helped you and Benchmark become prominently involved in mega residential investment, development and management projects in the region?
In each one of us, there are layers that build our professional careers, and personal character. Being in planning, dealing with public policy and building cities, I had to deal with people, aspirations, and political systems that build policies. From this perspective, if I build in Boston or Al Riyadh, it makes me understand what people look for in terms of lifestyle and how to build a safe and sustainable environment for families and investors. This helps you see beyond the physical built aspects.

8- How different is Qatar from other regional or international countries when it comes to investment, development and management of large residential projects?
The Qatari real estate market is practically 20% Qatari 80% expat so to build there you have to account for a highly evolving and changing expat community. It's not always British as it was in the 90s and not only Jordanian or Palestinian as in the 80s but now extremely mixed from all over Europe, the States, and China and therefore in order to do investment and development in that market, the question is "Can I do something global, something accepted by a multitude of people"? From this perspective, Qatar is surely becoming an international market, where standards are improving tremendously, and it's easier to design and build, and in terms of investment it's transparent and regulated, just like any international marketplace.

9- Is Investment, development and management an integrated operation for Benchmark?
No. Management includes a lot of facility management or property management and these are aspects that are not always money making. Our primary targets are on the investment and development sides and today we are at 10% of our investment targets with a portfolio exceeding $4 billion. These projects are spread across while only half of them incorporate facility management and when we go for a project we go for the value add or value creation that we can bring rather than implementing those three aspects as an integrated operation.

10-  Where are the opportunities for mega residential projects today? How do you feel about the Lebanese market where you are headquartered?
Saudi Arabia is a huge market that's undersupplied having a gap between supply and demand. The UAE is a very well serviced market, where Abu Dhabi and Dubai being oversupplied. Qatar is appropriately supplied but not all products are geared to the right target market, so you have a gap between supply and qualitative demand. We are not supplying 10 000 units versus a demand for 8000 units, but rather demand for particular units that are not available. Building readymade homes for Qataris, that by itself is a challenge not tackled by other developers, but you need to account not only for needs, aspirations, demands, and likeability in residents' primary homes but also the quality of what you build. The market today has a lot of substandard properties that end up in the leasing market because Qataris would refuse to use them as their primary homes and this is why we are taking on the challenge of building for Qataris. There is a big challenge in the 500 m2 sector and I think that as Qatar embarks in strategic sectors like education, food and water security, infrastructure investment and health, all of these will bring a tremendous young generation to come and live and invest in Qatar and they will require a different kind of housing and entertainment and the challenge is to start catering for these types of groups. The Pearl is for an international market not necessarily for Qataris, and can be used as investment entities or secondary homes. As for the Lebanese market, it has been sick for quite some time. It has witnessed a surged since the beginning of the year of about 25% from last year, so it has tried to resuscitate itself. The good thing about this market is that it rejuvenates itself. This year alone, we generated $40 million in sales from one of our projects and it shows the resiliency of the market.  

11- Is Benchmark bidding on new projects or is it trying to complete those within its portfolio? 
Developers and contractors are like sharks. They can't stop, and despite market fluctuations, we are always working. We have 2 mega projects pending land deals going through in Lebanon. In Doha, we are not bidding because we have already acquired the land in Lusail. In Saudi Arabia, we are continuing our residential development project.   

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