By Shaheen Pasha
DUBAI (Reuters) - Jordanian Ashraf Hamdan began investing in Dubai's real estate market in 2006, with a few modest rental investment forays before turning his sights on flashier projects as a wave of luxury developments hit the market.
The real estate bust in 2008 left investors like Hamdan with half-finished projects sitting in the desert sun and losses that were unlikely to be recouped.
"It was a costly learning experience for a real estate investor," said the 53-year-old businessman. "But real estate is in our blood here in the Arab world. It's a tangible investment, and from an Islamic perspective, that appeals to me.
"I'm just going to be looking for smarter, alternative ways to get into the market in the future."
The emergence of Islamic real estate investment trusts (REIT) in the Middle East, which offer the chance to own shares in a portfolio of real estate assets with a steady paid dividend from the income earned on those assets, may lure investors like Hamdan back to the sector again.
Islamic REITS differ from their conventional counterparts by banning investment in any assets that pay interest or conduct business in any forbidden industry, like gambling, alcohol or adult entertainment.
Aside from providing an alternative investment in the Gulf Islamic finance industry it could also inject more transparency and regulation in a property sector plagued by unrealistic expectations of returns and occasionally murky dealings.
"Over the last two or three years, people have been in freeze mode where the focus was cash and other liquid things," said Daniel Diembers, principal at Booz & Company in Dubai.
"The Dubai bubble really helped the (property) market to mature. Now is the moment where it is all shifting. There is a lot of wealth up for grabs."
Globally, the market capitalization for REITs was around $570 billion at the end of 2009, a 2010 Ernst & Young study said. Islamic REITs play a small role, with Asia serving as the predominant hub for sharia-compliant trusts.
Malaysia's Axis Global Industrial real estate investment trust (REIT) is planning an initial public offering with an asset size of $1.05 billion, making it the world's largest Islamic REIT.
Islamic REITs launched in Bahrain and Kuwait have been relatively small in size - Bahrain's Inovest REIT and Kuwait's Al Mahrab Tower REIT launched with less than $95 million in capital each - and neither has been publicly listed.
But an anticipated infrastructure boom in hot markets such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar and the launch of the UAE's first Islamic REIT may buoy faith in real estate investments, creating a wider niche for the sharia-compliant trusts to thrive.
Emirates REIT, which launched with seed capital from Islamic lender Dubai Islamic Bank <DISB.DU> last November, is aimed at medium-income investors and offers returns of 6 to 8 percent annually, said Mark Inch, director of Eiffel Holding and founding shareholder of Emirates REIT.
"There is a discipline and transparency that comes with a regulated REIT," he said. "Buildings will not only be properly managed but financial management will also be completely transparent. It's a prerequisite of bringing back confidence."
Emirates REIT has 40 deals under review ranging between 40 million dirhams to 500 million dirhams and will be fully operational by the summer, Inch said. An initial public offering is planned within 18 months to two years once it secures assets of 1.5 billion dirhams.
The interest is growing. National Bank of Abu Dhabi <NBAD.AD> is considering creating an Islamic REIT while the FTSE Group may develop an Islamic REIT index as the industry grows globally, officials at both said.
The Gulf region has dabbled in the REIT market over the years with little success.
A 2008 Islamic REIT launched by Saudi Arabia's Sumou Holding and Geneva-based Encore Management fizzled in the kingdom as the financial crisis sapped enthusiasm. Other attempts to launch a REIT in the region, including a conventional one by troubled property developer Nakheel <NAKHD.UL>, were quickly squashed.
Asia, by comparison, has seen a boom in sharia-compliant REITS. Malaysia, considered to be at the forefront of Islamic finance, launched its first Islamic REIT in 2006. Singapore's Sabana REIT, launched in 2010, was 2.5 times oversubscribed and saw heavy investor interest from the Gulf.
The Gulf has been held back by the slow pace of innovation in the real estate sector, as well as the Islamic finance industry in general, experts said.
In contrast to Malaysia, where the government is active in creating a strong regulatory environment, there is no regulatory standardization in the Middle East. And investors are understandably wary of investing in a new real estate venture given the spectacular property collapse in the region.
Oz Ahmed, associate director of wholesale banking at HSBC Amanah in Malaysia, said Mideast investors seem ready for homegrown REITS given the high participation in Asian ones.
"There's definite potential for issuers within the GCC to identify assets but people have to become comfortable with them," he said.
"We've gotten to the point where we're working well in the banking paradigm. Now practitioners are looking to develop products that come closer to Islamic finance principles."
(Editing by Amran Abocar and Jon Hemming)