It is a quarter past nine on a Tuesday morning and while motion in the lobby of the decades-old Dubai Land Department building is still slowly coming to life, two floors up, the offices of Dubai's Real Estate and Regulatory Authority (RERA) is already a whirlwind of activity, the atmosphere abuzz with ringing phones and the occasional ding of an elevator. RERA's early start can be attributed to its CEO, Marwan Ahmed Bin Ghalita, who greets us in a majlis-style enclave adjoining his office.

As a staff member hands out a small, warm cup of Arabic coffee, Bin Ghalita affirms what I have already guessed: "I am an early morning person. You might even find me the first person in the organization (to come in)." Naturally charismatic, with an infectious smile that has stood him in good stead when dealing with investors, Bin Ghalita plays a key role at RERA, a subsidiary of Dubai Land Department—that of closely regulating and managing the stakeholders of the emirate's real estate market. It is a job that many would peg as challenging, considering how closely Dubai's property market is connected to its economic growth.

According to a report released by the Dubai Land Department, the contribution of real estate activities to Dubai's GDP was 7.2% in 2018, up from 6.9% in 2017. About 51,000 transactions worth $60.7 billion (AED 223 billion) were carried out last year. Residential property transactions were the highest in number. But, once a high yield market for investors, Dubai's property has been feeling the heat as an influx of supply compresses prices and rents. Oversupply has led to uneasy developers calling out the issue publicly.

But Bin Ghalita says that it is not the supply that is worrisome at the moment, but the demand. "The supply is manageable by the private sector, but it is the job of the government to create more demand," he explains. One way that Dubai could do this would be to promote itself in a different way through roadshows, the CEO surmises. "We need a new strategy to market Dubai as the hub for happiness and opportunities."

Efforts are, perhaps, already underway for this transformation. Massive billboards citywide featuring an astronaut side-by-side with a robot and titled "the world's greatest show" indicate the emirate's plans to grab global attention when it hosts the Expo next year. Meanwhile, the giant eye-shaped "Museum of the Future" engraved with Arabic calligraphy (which is still under construction) at the mouth of Dubai's main expressway, Sheikh Zayed Road, signals the city's ambitions to become a hub of innovation in the region.

A transformation of sorts is underway at RERA as well, where Bin Ghalita and his team are working to make the real estate industry more transparent. One way they are doing this is by making more data available so that investors can make informed choices. RERA has recently started to publish transactional data and has even put up a service charge index that will allow future investors to see how much they would be charged in terms of maintenance before they invest. In 2018, the Dubai Land Department launched Deraya, an initiative that examined the performance of Dubai's real estate sector in previous years.

Such efforts seem to be paying off. Dubai is the Middle East's most transparent market, according to JLL's Global Real Estate Transparency Index, and was among the top three improvers in its semi-transparent category.

"Research has shown that there is a direct relationship between the transparency of real estate markets and the level of investment they attract, as well as the number of initiatives that have been launched to improve transparency and the quality of information available to real estate investors," says John Peacock, Head of Indirect Tax and Conveyancing at BSA Ahmad Bin Hezeem & Associates LLP.

RERA's efforts to be transparent do not stop there. The regulator has also launched a list of approved brokers, classified according to their areas of expertise and the sales they have completed so far so that investors not get cheated by phony dealers. Compiled within an app called Dubai Brokers, the list is meant to help investors make an informed choice and significantly improve market transparency.

"We call them consultancies because they are not just middlemen who would want to finish the deal and get out," explains Bin Ghalita. Brokers on the list are rated into three categories of gold, silver, and bronze depending on their sales records so far and are given stars in line with their performance. "An investor can choose whoever they want, they can see how many transactions they have made and which area they specialize in. We want the investor to have all the information before they make a decision."

Bin Ghalita also says that RERA— which recently had its duties reformed—is constantly listening to the investors and developers' feedback, and adjusting the regulations. One of its recent moves to improve transparency was the launch of an electronic system called Mollak, through which owners can see where every penny they pay in service charges will be used.

"They can see the budgets for the projects, they can see where the money is being spent and how much there is in the reserve fund," explains the CEO.

Such steps might have endeared investors to the local market, but the CEO says the main factor that has attracted investors to Dubai is the infrastructure it has built, the overall quality of life, and the ease of doing business. "Look at the soft infrastructure, which is the data, the applications, the process, the initiatives that the government is introducing to the market," he says.

These measures have been effective, propelling the country to the top of the league in terms of development. According to the 2019 Global Competitiveness Report, released by the World Economic Forum, the U.A.E. was named the most competitive economy in the Middle East, with the country significantly improving in terms of business dynamism and infrastructure. In Dubai, Bin Ghalita points out, the process of registering a property takes just 20 minutes and an investor can be on their way with the title deed in less than half an hour. "Imagine you are serving more than 395,000 investors from 200 nationalities and you are processing in 20 minutes."

The best ambassadors of Dubai, the CEO claims, are its residents who he calls "citizens by choice." Bin Ghalita points to the thousands of people who have built their businesses from scratch in the emirate and in the wider country. "The real estate market has given hope to people and they transfer this to businesses."

Compared to its early years, Dubai's property market has made real headway thanks to its efforts in digitizing and publicizing data for investors. For example, the emirate reportedly moved up eight places within the "semitransparent category" in JLL Global Transparency Index this year. "A range of new government initiatives through the passing of new legislation relating to a reorganizing of functions between the DLD and RERA together with the introduction of technology-driven products have been a main contributor to this improvement and adding to the transparency of the Dubai real estate market," says Peacock.

However, experts opine that more work needs to be done if the emirate wants to advance and be at par with other markets. "While it has progressively improved its ranking in the JLL Global Transparency Survey (ranking 39 out of 110 cities covered in our 2018 index), it remains in the semitransparent tier, some way below the level of transparency achieved in more mature global markets such as the U.K., the U.S., Australia, and France," says Craig Plumb, Head of Research at JLL MENA.

While Bin Ghalita would like nothing but to feature Dubai among the top markets, RERA's journey to its current position has been anything but easy. Established in 2007, RERA came into being to regulate all real estate activities, including off-plan sales in the fast-growing Dubai market. At that time, an infrastructure building boom had fueled an unprecedented growth in expat population, which in turn had led to a housing shortage.

Developers—both state-owned and private—rushed to close that gap by launching grandiose projects. "The market did not give you a chance to breathe because you came to regulate an existing market, and that is a difficult thing to do," remembers Bin Ghalita.

Dubai had only started selling freehold properties in 2002, and by 2007, the market was garnering interest from investors across the world. The onus was on RERA to find ways to regulate, but it needed to be in line with the principles of the free market. "You need to be careful not to destroy a booming real estate (market) with over-regulation," says the CEO.

Bin Ghalita and the team set to work with data already available from the land department. He followed it up with an in-depth study on investors and their needs in order to tailor the regulations to market conditions. With no prior examples to guide him, and being the first CEO at RERA, Bin Ghalita admits it was a challenge. "Nobody was there to hand me the torch or a booklet 'Marwan do this or that.'"

A year or two into RERA's formation, Dubai's property bubble burst, sending house prices careening by 50% between the third quarter of 2008 to mid-2009, according to a report by Savills Middle East (erstwhile Cluttons). While the crash prompted RERA and Dubai to exercise stricter controls, like doubling property transaction fees and higher deposit requirements on mortgages, it also realized the importance of technology in enhancing industry best practices.

In 2010—just three years after RERA's formation— its parent firm, Dubai Land Department, established Emirates Real Estate Solutions (ERES) in a joint venture with Emartech. ERES, later, went on to lay the foundation for a broader app called Dubai REST, through which investors, owners, and residents of properties in Dubai could access more details. "This real estate tech company gave us an advantage in all the software that is being used today," says Bin Ghalita. In a way, ERES helped RERA experiment in what is now termed as proptech. Today Bin Ghalita says that RERA is working with all new ideas related to proptech. The agency also has sent teams to premier organizations such as MIT to visit their real estate lab and replicate their innovative solutions in the market. "Any new idea in proptech should lead to the happiness of the investors and residents," he stresses.

A long-term employee of the Dubai Land Department, Bin Ghalita is keenly aware of the ethos
of the organization and, more importantly, about the market. A keen orator at global and local real estate conferences, he is extremely familiar with the nuances of the market and does not shy away from tough questions. Within the Dubai Land Department building, acquaintances rush to shake hands with him as he walks down to the lobby. It has been his workplace for more than two decades.

The executive joined the Land Department as a survey engineer in 1995, after being educated in the U.S. His flair for administration later earned him a promotion to Vice-President of the department's survey division. "I learned everything inside out and moved up," reminisces Bin Ghalita, who later became the president and the head of the technical affairs department before being appointed as CEO of RERA.

Bin Ghalita has not limited himself to his duties at the Dubai Land Department. The Emirati is also the first vice president of the Federal National Council—a consultative council and the parliamentary body of the U.A.E., and the president of the U.A.E. Football Association. "I took it as a challenge to see how can I contribute with the team in changing the structure of football in the community," he says, referring to his role in the football governing body. Bin Ghalita stood for election three years ago and won. This trait of competitiveness has also spilled over to his main job.

As Dubai's property market settles down after a decade of volatile prices, Bin Ghalita and his team are now looking to attract more institutional investors. "We're working with a new regulation concerning REITs," he adds, while they re also introducing new models like crowdsourcing and rent-to-own schemes to encourage fractional ownership. Crowdsourcing is still an upcoming field, but Bin Ghalita hopes it will entice a crop of institutional investors to Dubai's property market. Reason: he believes that Dubai still has much to offer to investors looking for returns.

"Many say Dubai property market is fairly valued, but I say we are undervalued with all the infrastructure that is built," he says. With Expo 2020 on the horizon and with regulations filtering into Dubai's real estate sector, it is yet to see whether investors will now flock back to the Middle East's business hub.

Published by Forbes Middle East.

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