Hadi Moussa, general manager for Airbnb in the Middle East and Africa. With an 80 per cent growth month-on-month in the Middle East and Africa, Airbnb is looking to Expo 2020 Dubai to ramp up its UAE roll out. Image Credit: Courtesy: Airbnb

Dubai: Airbnb, the vacation rentals service and one of the world’s most valuable start-ups, has had a slow and staggered roll-out in the UAE, owing to regulatory concerns and other roadblocks.

With 80 per cent growth month-on month-in the Middle East and Africa, the company says it hopes to change all that in the run up to Dubai Expo 2020 and other major regional events.

 Tourism is increasing, and we are getting closer to Expo 2020, and 20 million visitors to Dubai. At the same time, there is a large supply of homes that could be listed on Airbnb. That’s a big opportunity.”

 - Hadi Mousa | General manager for Airbnb in the Middle East and Africa


The online home rental service, which is only regulated in Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah, says it hopes to soon iron out any regulatory concerns in key markets such as Abu Dhabi and Riyadh in Saudi Arabia.

In April, Abu Dhabi’s top tourism official told Gulf News that it was preparing to begin working with Airbnb imminently. Despite this — in an exclusive interview — Hadi Moussa, general manager for Airbnb in the Middle East and Africa, said that the deal was not quite done yet.

“It’s an ongoing conversation that we’re having,” Moussa said, adding: “it’s something that we’re discussing and want to continue to discuss to get it to a place where homesharing is easier, simple and clearer in Abu Dhabi.”

He said the company did not yet have a time frame for new regulations dealing with Airbnb in the capital, but noted that “the sooner the better.”

Airbnb, recently valued at around $38 billion, is currently in conversation with other emirates as well.

It is pointing to the strong growth that Dubai’s homesharing market has experienced since the government legalised Airbnb in 2016, ending years of ambiguity, and cementing proof of its popularity.

The move has certainly paid dividends for the company: Since 2015, revenues for Dubai properties listed on the online marketplace have increased by 421 per cent, with the number of listings nearly tripling to 3,249, according to estate agent Chestertons.

“We’ve seen strong growth after the MoU and regulations in place. We want to take that model to other emirates,” Moussa noted.

On the major issues still facing Airbnb in other emirates, Moussa said that the concerns varied “quite a bit from emirate to emirate,” adding that in the UAE and Middle East in general, “there is the concern about how we could secure quality.”

A result of this quest for quality control was the introduction of a registration system, as part of the 2016 deal between Airbnb and Dubai authorities.

Landlords must first register and apply for a permit before listing their property on the website.

“Ideally, what we’d like is regulatory certainty across the UAE. [We want] hosts to list across the country,” he added.

Vacant opportunity

Airbnb has accused city politicians in New York, which in July proposed a similar bill to regulate the service, of being in the pocket of hotel owners who potentially stand to lose out from the rise of the disruptive platform.

When asked if Airbnb was further undermining an already oversupplied hotel market in Abu Dhabi, Moussa declined to say that this was why a legal framework hadn’t been forthcoming: The service was simply diversifying the city’s offering, he offered. “It tends to bring a different type of traveller,” he added.

As opposed to corporate visitors or those who enjoy the trappings of a five-star beach resort, over 90 per cent of Airbnb users say they choose the homesharing platform because they want to live like a local, according to Airbnb statistics.

In a sort-of reversal of roles, Airbnb faces a challenge of its own in Dubai, from the rise of three- and four-star hotels. The emergence of home-grown brands such as Jumeirah’s Zabeel House and Emaar’s Rove, designed to cater to young, budget-conscious traveller keen to explore a different side to the city, present a problem for Airbnb, which largely markets itself in the same way.

Moussa said that the new hotel chains aimed at a new tourist demographic was all “part of the diversification story that we see.”

“It’s really exciting for Dubai,” he added.

One glaring opportunity for Airbnb — and in turn the UAE — is the abundance of vacant property.

In a kind of dovetailing of interests, the company is working with developers in Dubai to list some of their uninhabited apartments on the site. “This is an opportunity for us. Tourism is increasing, and we are getting closer to Expo 2020, and 20 million visitors to Dubai,” Moussa said, adding: “At the same time, there is a large supply of homes that could be listed on Airbnb. That’s a big opportunity.”

The size of that opportunity was leading to a number of real estate companies trying to get in on the act, she pointed out. “[The real estate developers] are thinking through how they can monetise that supply which is vacant.”

Despite this presenting another challenge to Airbnb’s dominance, Moussa is upbeat about its future in the region.

“With Saudi Vision 2030, and Expo 2020 ... this presents a big opportunity for us here,” he said.