Will Middle Eastern Real Estate Investors Remain on the Sidelines?

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Investment from the Middle East into U.S. commercial real estate has been trending down this year, and the cause likely stems from the drop in oil prices.

Year-to-date as of the third quarter, capital from Canada dominated cross-border investment in U.S. commercial real estate, followed by Singapore, according to a recent report from New York-based real estate research firm Real Capital Analytics (RCA). Meanwhile, incoming capital from the Middle East into the U.S. real estate sector totaled $4.057 billion in the third quarter—a decline of 71 percent compared to the same time last year, and investment from the region also marked the biggest drop year-over-year, of 72 percent. Of Middle Eastern countries, Saudi Arabia posted the biggest decline in investment into U.S. real estate, 96 percent year-to-date, while Israel, Qatar and Kuwait all saw decreases as well.

A recent report from real estate services firm CBRE on investment flows from the region noted an overall drop in spending on global real estate in 2016 and 2017, largely due to the price of oil remaining near $50 a barrel on average. The low oil prices have impacted the spending capacity of the region’s sovereign wealth funds. Middle Eastern investors were responsible for $10.1 billion in foreign investments in the year leading up to the second quarter of 2017, close to 2013 and 2014 levels, but off the 2015 peak in spending, according to the report. However, the current amount of investment coming in from the region is not insignificant. “It’s still a lot of money,” says Chris Ludeman, global president of capital markets at CBRE.

However, U.S.-bound capital flows dropped to $3.9 billion in the year prior to the second quarter of 2017, compared to $10.3 billion over the same period the year before, according to the CBRE report, which also attributes the drop in investment in part to the political tension surrounding the policies instituted by President Donald Trump to restrict migration from certain Middle Eastern countries. “As long as there remains uncertainty about the direction of these policies, it is unlikely that capital flows to the U.S. will recover to levels previously recorded,” the report states.

While investors are aware of issues related to the immigration ban, it is more likely that their top concern is simply pricing, says Jim Costello, senior vice president at RCA. “It’s not as though there’s talk of building a wall to capital,” he says. Instead, the slowdown of Middle Eastern capital into the U.S. may be a function of regional investors having less capital to invest with because of the drop in oil wealth, coupled with fewer opportunities to find good rates of return, Costello notes.

Noble Carpenter, president of investor services and capital markets at real estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield, also notes that the price of oil is the most likely culprit affecting real estate investment into the U.S. from Middle Eastern investors. While there have been a range of political issues in countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar that may be contributing to the slowdown, the decline largely relates to oil prices remaining around $50 a barrel. “That is the primary driver of many of the Middle Eastern economies,” Carpenter says.

Another factor potentially contributing to the slowdown is that investment sales in general are off in the U.S. compared to 2016 levels, he notes. “The overall market’s off a little bit,” Carpenter says. Heading into 2018, Carpenter doesn’t expect the situation to change drastically: “Unless there’s an event, or some catalyst, that causes the price of oil to change dramatically, I would think that 2018 is more of the same,” Carpenter says.

Still, though money is still flowing, there are political issues in the region that require vigilance, according to Ludeman. While Saudi Arabia has released Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, the circumstances around his arrest and that of other elites, in an apparent anti-corruption sweep, remain unclear, and this has fueled uncertainty among investors and business partners connected to the crown, according to The New York Times.

It is too early to tell how the events in Saudi Arabia, which are still unfolding, may impact commercial real estate and capital from the Middle East. “It will take awhile for that to manifest itself in the markets,” Ludeman says. There is still uncertainty about the circumstances surrounding what is going on with crown and those connected to it, which may make some people keep their heads down, he adds.

“Investors are probably thinking twice about what they might do,” says Chris Brett, head of international capital for the UK and EMEA at CBRE. While there has not been any big immediate impact from the detentions, Brett predicts that more private investors may seek to diversify outside of the country—also a trend that would take time to actualize. The Arab Spring was another political event that caused investors to pause temporarily, which may happen again, he adds. “It calmed things down and then the flow of capital continued after,” Brett says.

Overall, CBRE sees Middle Eastern investment trending upward, Ludeman says. There has been an increase in private, ultra-high-net-worth investors making big-ticket acquisitions, in addition to the more typical acidity by sovereign wealth funds. Investors from the region have also been looking more at asset classes aside from their traditional bets on hotels and office buildings, including multifamily housing, logistics facilities and student housing, he notes. And with the recent announcement by the Public Investment Fund, a sovereign wealth fund out of Saudi Arabia, of committing $20 billion to Blackstone’s infrastructure vehicle, there will eventually likely be a bigger investment in U.S. commercial real estate coming from Saudi Arabia in particular, Brett adds.

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