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John Defterios: In Dubai, 'casino-like culture' has set in

By John Defterios, CNN
July 1, 2014 -- Updated 1326 GMT (2126 HKT)
The June sell-off is bringing Dubai's red-hot property market back into focus.
The June sell-off is bringing Dubai's red-hot property market back into focus.
  • John Defterios looks at Dubai Financial Market's new "casino-like culture"
  • In June, Dubai's stocks lost 22% from beginning to end and moved into bear market territory
  • The aggressive sell-off is bringing Dubai's red-hot property market back into focus

Editor's note: John Defterios is CNN's Emerging Markets Editor and anchor of Global Exchange, CNN's business show focused on the emerging and BRIC markets. Follow John on Twitter.

(CNN) -- From a stock market perspective, the month of June was one of the nastiest on record for the Dubai Financial Market.

It lost 22% from beginning to end, putting this small exchange with high volatility into bear market territory.

This is a bad start for its first official month of trading as an emerging market after a reclassification by MSCI.

Dubai's DFM broke through the 5,000 level in April, but the intense selling took the index down to below 4,000 on Monday, before investors spotted another buying opportunity.

On Tuesday, the index was down 5%, then finished the day up 3%.

John Defterios
John Defterios

It seems a "casino-like culture" has set in.

As Saleem Kokar, head of equities at National Bank of Abu Dhabi Asset Management said, "the fundamentals just don't make sense."

After peaking at 19 times 2014 earnings, the June correction took it down to more reasonable levels of 13 times earnings.

But after the market wash-out in June, the DFM is still up 82% in the past 12 months of trading.

The real danger, fund managers suggest, is that relatively new investors have borrowed to buy property stocks. Once the selling started they sold their holdings having to cover their loans.

One property stock in particular triggered this market madness.

A perfect market storm

Arabtec is a large construction group which has business scattered all over the Middle East and North Africa.

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Its former CEO Hassan Ismaik was forced to resign last month after it was found that he stockpiled 28% of the company's shares, most of them in the span of a month. He is now offering to sell his stake for double what the stock is currently trading and go on his merry way.

Fund managers and markets strategists tell me trading activity around Arabtec screams out for market reform and greater transparency -- something the MSCI listed as a requirement before the UAE and Qatar markets were assigned an upgrade to the emerging market club.

But the June sell-off is bringing Dubai's red-hot property market back into focus.

Residential real estate values climbed 33% year-on-year in the first quarter of the year and are nearly back at levels seen in 2008 before the property bubble burst the next year.

Hotel occupancy rates hit 88% in the same timeframe according to property consultancy Jones Lang LaSalle.

Kokar of NBAD told me he hopes this market matures enough to strip out the volatility and identify the underlying fundamentals -- chief among them is solid economic growth.

The UAE is expected to expand by some 5% this year, as a result of Dubai securing the World Expo in 2020 and intense infrastructure spending in neighboring Abu Dhabi, which controls most of the oil wealth in the federation.

On a recent visit to the Dubai trading floor, retired school teacher turned private trader Zakariya Al-Assar did a simple calculation, telling me the Dow Industrial index was trading above 16,500 and Dubai below 5,000.

"We are looking for more Inshallah," he said meaning if God is willing. His prayers, so far, have not been answered.

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