The Telegraph, May 29, 2011
Kabul gold rush: western billions bear fruit in luxury property boom for Afghan capital
Kabul is witnessing an unlikely boom in luxury properties as the billions spent in Afghanistan by the West begin to bear unexpected fruit
By Ben Farmer
The brochures offering pampered life in state-of-the-art apartments could be selling dream properties in any Western capital.
And the ornate towers and palm trees shown in artists' impressions would look at home in the boulevards of a Gulf emirate.
However the chic apartments they advertise will not be built in London, Dubai or New York, but in one of the world's poorest countries, wracked by a violent insurgency.
In Kabul, a series of luxury apartment blocks and even a skyscraper are planned for those who have made fortunes in the gold rush bought by Nato forces. Twin 26-storey towers are scheduled to begin construction next month and at least eight other luxury blocks are planned or underway.
Onyx Construction's projected buildings in Kabul. (Photo: The Telegraph)
Property developers told The Sunday Telegraph they had been overwhelmed by demand for swanky apartments, priced at up to £130,000, from Afghans grown rich on international jobs and reconstruction contracts.
Western billions freely pumped into the capital, and its relative safety compared to record violence afflicting the rest of Afghanistan, are feeding the boom.
While 10 years of foreign aid have left most Afghans untouched and done little to alleviate their poverty, a lucky few have instead made a killing from Kabul's war economy.
Investors and speculators are racing to cash in while keeping one eye on the withdrawal of foreign troops and development money which could crash the market.
Afghans on average earn around £1 a day, but the lucky few can afford to shop alongside bored foreign contractors and diplomats in the city's malls.
Each day in the City Centre mall or the new Gulbahar Centre, fashionably-dressed Afghans browse jewellery, laptops and cameras costing thousands of dollars. The city's murky banks purr with the flutter of banknote-counting machines and wads of $100 bills briskly change hands in the Sarai Shahzada money-changing bazaar.
The city is so awash with fast cash it surprises even the suave marketing staff of Alokozay Group, which is building the twin towers.
They tell the story of a young man from the Panjshir Valley, aged about 25, who walked into their office earlier this year vaguely saying he worked in construction and wanted an apartment. Finding one he liked, he left saying he to would arrange the money soon.
"The full amount was in our bank account within an hour," said one salesman, who declined to be named. "Eighty to ninety per cent of the money is coming from the foreigners or people's contracts with expats," he explained.
"People who have earned money in the past eight or nine years, they have done very well indeed."
Syed Fazl Khelwati, assistant sales manager of Alokozay Group, said his apartments were targeted at émigrés wanting to return and businessmen who had made fortunes from the West. "Afghan people are hard workers and a lot of them have done well. They like to save money and like to invest in land and property," he said.
America alone has spent more than £36 billion reconstructing the country since 2001. More is ploughed in to keep the Nato military machine housed, fuelled, fed and watered.
In the next four years, £7.4 billion worth of barracks, garrisons and outposts for the Afghan police and army are planned, with the money mostly going to Afghan construction companies. Contracts to supply the foreign effort change hands with little oversight to stop waste or corruption.
Other fortunate Afghans have hit the jackpot with jobs at embassies or western companies where junior staff can earn £1,000 a month upwards – 25 times what a teacher takes home.
For Habibullah Wajdi, 39, it would have been cheaper to buy an apartment in Amherst, Massachusetts, where he has recently finished a PhD, than in Kabul. His desire to raise his children in their homeland overcame his concerns about security.
"All Afghans worry about security, but with that there's also resilience, we just have to live with it," he said. "With worry, there's always hope, especially in Kabul." But even on his salary of £2,300 a month as a senior local staff member at a prestigious international body, his £114,000 apartment in an incomplete 12-storey block, is a stretch.
"The demand is so huge, I don't know how people are supporting it," he said. "I think the only people who can afford these are people doing business with the West."
As the boom continues, half-built brick towers, screened in ragged green tarpaulin, are emerging above the capital's low-rise neighbourhoods. Blocks have been sold out long before they are complete and builders are adding extra floors to satisfy demand.
Alokozay, a Dubai-based Afghan firm which is a household name for its cooking oil and tea, began dabbling with property only recently with its 12-storey Alokozay Residence behind the city's Safi Landmark hotel.
That tower stands three-quarters complete, but its 57 apartments are long sold out. Priced at up to £130,000 each, they cost around 500 times the gross national income per person. All but five went for large cash payments rather than mortgage deals and none of the buyers were foreigners.
Alokozay believes demand is so strong, its towers, named the Alokozay Centre, will hold 600 apartments and 300 shops when they are built on a two-acre site which once housed the city's United Nations' guesthouse. The biggest apartments will go on sale for more than £200,000.
Alokozay's ambitions are undaunted by earthquakes or suicide bombings. Mr Khelwati said: "Afghans in Kabul don't pay attention to these things. They are familiar with these kinds of situations. Right now it's like taking candy from a baby."
Japanese architects have been asked to design floating foundations to secure the towers against tremors and residents will be able to relax in a swimming pool, gym and sauna.
Onyx Construction, part of the well-connected Azizi Group, has seven ornate high-rise blocks underway according to its website, though none have been completed. They include the Azizi Centre, described as a "perfect urban refuge", with a pilates room, and the Azizi Milli Palace, described as "premiere living personified".
Torialai Bahadery, an estate agent in Kabul, said foreigners had avoided the properties, but Afghans had been attracted by profit and prestige. Afghan companies which had lost fortunes during Dubai's property slump of 2008 were recouping them in the Kabul boom.
Foreign money, urbanisation as people fled rural poverty and fighting, and pressure on land were driving prices up. In the prime Shahr-e-Naw district, residential property is currently going for £1,000 per square metre he said and rising. The possible returns compared favourably with Dubai and Europe.
Entrepreneurs were piling into the property market fuelling a bubble with little thought for the future he said. "Afghans don't think about the future any more," Mr Bahadery laughed.
"If you talk to a guy who is building a multiple-storey building and ask him how he is going to rent it, or how long it will take to get your money back, he will say 'I don't know, I just like it!'
Drugs money also drives Kabul's capitalist free-for all, said Wahid Mujda, a former Taliban official and now a researcher with the Kabul Centre for Strategic Studies. "In Afghanistan we have developed the wrong understanding about capitalism. Here we think the open market means you can do anything you like.
"There are only two types of money in Kabul. The money that comes from the foreigners and the money that comes from opium. In Afghanistan no one is going to ask which side yours comes from."
A generation of businessmen who had earned millions building and supplying Nato bases since 2001 used their wealth to bankroll successful campaigns during last year's parliamentary elections, he said.
Nato has committed to keep combat troops in Afghanistan until at least 2014 and remain on a training mission afterwards, though alliance members face growing domestic disillusion with their campaign.
As long as Nato remained, the good times would continue for those who could grab a slice of the western money, Mr Khelwati predicted. "If the Americans and Nato are here, there will be no change in the situation. If they go, that's a different story."
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