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Sharjah has been recognized this year as one of the world's best cities by a global index that relies on composite data related to economic potential, business friendliness, human capital, lifestyle, cost effectiveness and connectivity. Each criteria is weighted by its importance to the foreign direct investment (FDI) decision-making process. In the Top 10 overall small and mid-sized cities' category of the Global Cities of the Future Index for 2014-15, Sharjah placed ninth globally and third in the Middle East.
The remarkable achievement has been credited to the extensive work over the past decade to build the economic and human resource potential of Sharjah, with Shurooq, an independent body that oversees the emirate's social, cultural, environmental and economic development, at the helm of the government-led initiative. Recently announced master-planned communities and mega projects such as Sharjah Waterfront City (see box), along with tourism initiatives such as Kalba Eco-Tourism Project and Al Hisn Island, are among the major developments being promoted by Shurooq.
''Few people realise that Sharjah's residential landscape is going through a phenomenal sea change,'' says Faisal Durrani, Head of Research of Cluttons. ''The pace at which we are seeing the emergence of world class master-planned communities such as Al Zahia and Tilal City is setting the benchmark for future master-planned communities.''
While the scale and pace of development is slower than Dubai or Abu Dhabi, Durrani says the emirate is ''blazing a trail in the creation of affordable upscale developments that are designed around the emirate's rich Islamic heritage. This in itself is allowing the emergence of a niche residential market that caters to families who have been priced out of other markets in the UAE and those that have been waiting for more affordable communities in surroundings that echo their more traditional lifestyles.
''Sharjah is taking place making back to basics and developing communities that people want to be a part of. There has been a tremendous level of appetite in Sharjah's first family-friendly gated communities.''
Suzanne Eveleigh, Cluttons' Head of Sharjah, adds, ''For Sharjah, it's more than just creating another gated community. The government is spearheading the creation of family-friendly enclaves on the fringes of the city that are packed with all the supporting amenities.''
Eveleigh notes that there is a strong underlying desire to ensure facilities such as mosques, schools, clinics and community shopping centres, along with adequate transportation infrastructure, are in place long before the first residents move in.
John Stevens, Managing Director of Asteco, says, ''Renewed confidence in the long-term potential of Sharjah's residential sales market could gain momentum, with the imminent relaunch of land sales at the Shoumous Residential Complex.''
Located on the Sharjah-Kalba Road, the Shoumous Residential Complex targets GCC as well as Arab nationals, and was initially launched following the success of plot sales within the Tilal City development.
However, although the emirate's property sales market has opened up in recent months, Stevens says that except for land plots at Tilal City that were priced in line with market demand, few properties have actually been sold due to the high asking prices.
''The lack of activity has been further compounded by a wave of affordable project launches in neighbouring Dubai, which diverted prospective buyer interest and resulted in the emirate feeling the effects of a reverse relocation trend.''
The northern emirates' real estate market closely follows the Dubai market. ''There is a few months' delay between recovery and periods of stabilisation,'' explains Stevens. ''So new project announcements and the timetabled completion of developments such as Al Noor Island are vital elements in securing investor interest and confidence in the months to come.''
For Sharjah and Ajman landlords, a 3 per cent quarter-on-quarter drop in residential rental rates was prompted by a rise in vacancy levels as new supply was handed over and a reverse relocation to Dubai started to gain momentum. ''Asteco research has also noted that enquiry levels were lower compared with the previous quarter,'' adds Stevens.
Strategically located between Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed and University City roads, in the vicinity of Sharjah University City and the emirate's airport, the Al Zahia community has major road links to Dubai and the northern emirates.
''Al Zahia brings together contemporary community lifestyle and traditional values throughout every aspect of its development,'' says Bader Hareb, Chief Property Officer — Communities Business Unit at Majid Al Futtaim Properties. ''It will ultimately be home to more than 12,000 residents and span a total area of around 1.3 million sq m.''
Comprising parks, children's play areas, community retail facilities and the upcoming City Centre Al Zahia mall, the project offers spacious villas and town houses that cater mainly to families. There are also studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments in the succeeding phase of development.
''Al Zahia has recently launched garden apartments that offer customers great investment opportunities in Sharjah, with studios starting at Dh300,000,'' adds Hareb.
The development also includes recreation, retail and other facilities.
Tilal City, Sharjah's first master-planned community, offers 1,855 land plots for development to UAE residents. The Dh2.4-billion project is located on Emirates Road, just 10km from Sharjah International Airport and within convenient commuting distance to nearby emirates, with Dubai just two kilometers away.
''Our research clearly indicated that there is a huge gap in the market and demand for first-class community facilities and amenities in Sharjah,'' says Haysam Jazairi, Business Development Executive Director of Tilal Properties.
Working closely with architects Khatib & Alami, Tilal Properties has allocated 45 per cent of the land to community facilities such as green spaces, jogging and bicycle tracks, six mosques and education, retail and leisure areas. ''There will be 11 educational facilities, including early development centres for children,'' adds Jazairi.
Split into five zones (A-E), Tilal City will occupy an area of 25 million sq ft and provide high-quality affordable housing for 55,000-65,000 residents in apartments, villas and town houses. The developer has released plots on Zones A and C for sale.
''We are confident that the strategic master plan and attractive plot pricing will ensure huge demand — in both rental and sales — delivering attractive returns to land investors in Tilal City,'' says Jazairi.
''The convenience of location, along with the desirable community facilities, housing options, attractive pricing plans and the high sales volumes we have seen in Zones A and C confirms the importance of opening up the project's investment opportunities to UAE residents and the position of Sharjah as an attractive real estate investment area.''
Eveleigh says, ''At Tilal City, we have been overwhelmed by demand from the expat community. While UAE nationals account for just over 50 per cent of all transactions to date, we have seen a huge amount of demand from UAE residents who are native to the wider Middle East [and are] singling out Tilal City as somewhere they wish to live and raise their families.''
Built at a cost of Dh550 million, the exclusive Shoumous Residential Complex is being developed by Shoummous Properties, a partnership between the UAE's Albatha Real Estate Group and MAG Group.
Launched in February, the project is being promoted as the UAE's first fully serviced gated community.
''For the first time ever, customers can purchase a premium plot of land in a fully serviced complex that allows them the freedom to plan and build their dream homes according to their own living concept and style,'' says Dr Hani S. Abu Auida, CEO of Shoumous Properties and Vice-Chairman of MAG Group.
Spread over 6.8 million sq ft with 220 residential plots, Shoumous will offer six different sizes of plots, ranging from 18,442-39,297 sq ft. The complex is situated in the Al Tai district of Sharjah, with easy access to the Sharjah Downtown area and airport, while its proximity to Emirates Road means that Dubai is just 15 minutes away. The development is registered with the Sharjah Real Estate Department.
The complex will offer a multitude of services that will transform it into a self contained community. Its extensive array of facilities include a commercial centre, three parks, two mosques and a hypermarket.
''We extensively researched the needs of premium buyers and found there was demand from niche buyers who place a prime value on exclusivity,'' explains Dr Hani. ''This is a great opportunity to invest in property in Sharjah.''
Shoumous Residential Complex is freehold for Arab nationals with UAE residency. Handover will be by the end of the year.
Sharjah Waterfront City
Sharjah Waterfront City, a freehold waterfront project with 36km of coastline, is expected to be the largest commercial, residential and tourism development project in the emirate, with a total area of around 60 million sq ft.
The project consists of 10 islands interconnected by canals and features villas, apartments, offices, hotels, a water theme park, marine clubs, parks and other amenities.
Officially launched at Cityscape Global, the project will be developed in stages, with phase one expected to be completed by the third quarter of 2018. ''This is an incredibly exciting time for us at Cityscape, where we formally outline our progress with the Sharjah Waterfront City project, which is set to change the face of Sharjah's tourism landscape as the first tourist destination for families,'' says Hayssam Al Masri, President of Sharjah Oasis Real Estate Development, the project's developer. ''Our objective is to develop Sharjah Waterfront City as the epitome of privacy, luxury and status. We believe we can significantly add value to the emirate's goal of establishing itself as the cultural capital of the UAE.''
Source: N.P. Krishna Kumar, Special to Property Weekly