Real estate prices in Iraq’s southern city of Karbala are rocketing. Recently the price per square meter for a hotel located between two of the holy shrines that draw so many visitors to Karbala was recorded as US$3,900.
Organizers of a project involving an expansion of the shrine of Imam al-Hussein, the Prophet Mohammed\'s grandson, had offered the hotel owner this much for his property. In other spaces that were also wanted for the same project, the property owners, who included retailers and hoteliers, were offered between US$850 and US$2,600 per square meter, depending on where the land was.
The expansion of the shrines is going to raise property prices throughout the city, says local economist Khalid al-Taei. Given the huge numbers of visitors coming to Karbala every year and the development of various international business complexes here, al-Taei predicts that prices per square meter could even go as high as US$4,500.
By comparison prices per square meter in central Baghdad sit between US$2,000 and US$2,500. Karbala’s prices are equal to other cities in the world. Buyers pay around the same in central Tokyo, Japan, Caracas in Venezuela or Istanbul, Turkey. But they still have some catching up to do to be as expensive as property prices are in London (US$8,000 per square meter) or New York (around US$9,000 per square meter).
The agents overseeing the funds dedicated to the shrines of Imam Hussein and the shrine dedicated to his loyal brother, Abbas, have already purchased a lot of agricultural land around Karbala and those sites are supposedly earmarked for the construction of things like tourist villages, more mosques and other commercial buildings. So far, three tourist villages are being built and they’re located on the Karbala-Najaf and the Baghdad – Erbil roads. This kind of activity is what is driving property prices up here.
Estimates on how many visitors arrive in the city each year vary, with some official sources putting the number at around 35 million. However based on figures for 2010 and 2011, it’s most likely to be sitting somewhere between 15 and 25 million visitors per year. Those kinds of numbers, along with a successful agricultural history, make the city one of Iraq’s most prosperous. Additionally Karbala is not only known as a centre for tourism but also as a place where, increasingly, important religious and political decisions are being made.
Of course it depends where in the city of Karbala one is looking, says local real estate agent Sabah al-Tamimi. But the price per square meter in the central city, where one can find restaurants, shopping malls and luxury hotels, has already reached US$4,000, he says.
Another local real estate agent, Shakir al-Jibouri, added that the price had already gone up to US$4,300 in some of the areas he sold property in. Mainly because this was in one of the neighbourhoods where high ranking government officials and politicians tended to live – the area was nicknamed the “Green Zone” after Baghdad’s own highly protected Green Zone, which houses foreign embassies, ministries and the homes of government officials.
Even agricultural land near the city was benefitting from the property boom, Ulwan Habib, the owner of a real estate agency that specialized in farm land, told NIQASH.
One of the farm owners, Riad al-Asadi, who is also a lawyer, believes that the agricultural area is going to become the “new Karbala”. “The area has good roads, sidewalks and other needed infrastructure,” al-Asadi said. And the prices are going up continuously, he noted, because of the number of wealthy business people coming here to buy land so they can build houses in what is considered a beautiful landscape, away from the hustle and bustle of the city.