US sanctions squeeze Iran middle class, upend housing sector

Iran’s large middle class has been hit hard by the fallout from unprecedented US sanctions, including the collapse of the national currency. (AP)
Updated 23 July 2019

US sanctions squeeze Iran middle class, upend housing sector

  • Most Iranians were hit hard by the collapse of the national currency, accelerating inflation and eroding wages
  • Perhaps most devastating for Iran’s large middle class has been the sharp spike in housing prices, more than double in a year

TEHRAN, Iran: Stay-at-home mom Maryam Alidadi used to lead a comfortable middle-class life. The 35-year-old and her husband, a mechanic, could afford a spacious rental apartment in a central neighborhood of Tehran, along with a car, occasional restaurant meals and holidays abroad.
Now they are barely hanging on, even after drastically cutting spending.
Like most Iranians, the family was hit hard by the collapse of the national currency, accelerating inflation and eroding wages — fallout from unprecedented US sanctions.
Perhaps most devastating for Iran’s large middle class has been the sharp spike in housing prices, more than double in a year. That has uprooted tenants and made home ownership unattainable for most.
The Alidadis sold their car and borrowed from friends and family to buy a smaller apartment in a less desirable area on the outskirts of Tehran — in hindsight a smart move, since they’ve been priced out of their old neighborhood by now.
“Right now, this is the most difficult period ever,” said Alidadi’s 58-year-old mother, Shahla Allahverdi, reflecting on the Islamic Republic’s 40-year history as she shared a park bench with her daughter.
Iranians worry about the future as tensions between Iran and the West continue to rise.
The escalation — triggered by the Trump administration’s withdrawal last year from Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers — seems unstoppable, and European mediators trying to defuse the situation keep coming up short.
The showdown between Washington and Tehran has upended the lives of Iranians as they try to survive on less. A bride borrowed a wedding dress because she couldn’t afford to buy or even rent one. More newlyweds move in with their families to save money. Visa requests are up at foreign embassies, with young Iranians eager to leave.
Some wonder how far Washington is willing to push its “maximum pressure” campaign.
The Trump administration says the sanctions are aimed at getting Iran to renegotiate the nuclear deal, which offered sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on Iran’s nuclear program.
Washington denies its ultimate aim is to end the rule of Shiite Muslim clerics — though John Bolton, an architect of the pressure campaign, called for regime change before he became Trump’s national security adviser.
Some say Washington’s actions appear to have strengthened the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard and other hard-liners at the expense of President Hassan Rouhani, once the nuclear deal’s most prominent champion.
The Guard has been able to deepen its role in the economy, domestic politics and foreign policy under the guise of security, said Ellie Geranmayeh, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Despite the economic upheaval, there have only been sporadic protests.
Iran analyst Adnan Tabatabai said he believes Iranians are “reluctant to take their grievances to the street” for now, amid fear of further chaos and pushback by the authorities.
The economy contracted by 4.9% from March 2018 to March 2019. It is expected to shrink by an additional 5.5% in the year ending March 2020, according to Iranian figures. The official inflation rate has risen to 35%, up from 23.8% in the March 2018 to March 2019 period.
The housing and construction sector, which makes up about one-quarter of the economy and is the top destination for savings and investments, has been thrown out of balance.
Property owners are reluctant to sell and landlords are sharply raising rents because of the currency collapse, said Ali Dadpay, a finance professor at the University of Dallas. He said an estimated 490,000 homes stand empty in and around the capital, including more than 40,000 units added this year.
At the same time, construction lags far behind the need of 1.2 million new homes a year nationwide, said Hesam Oghabaei, deputy head of the Tehran association of real estate agents. He said about 25% of Tehran’s residents live in rented apartments, and the vast majority cannot afford the price increases.
The Peyman family — elderly parents and eight adult children — own a 110 square meter (1,180 square feet) apartment in Tehran’s District 12, a poor area plagued by drug addiction and other social problems. More than a decade ago, the Peymans rented the apartment, and used the extra income to move to a nicer area.
Now they are back in District 12, renovating the old apartment after being squeezed out of the good neighborhood by a rent hike.
“We have to come here because we have no other choice,” said the patriarch, Muslim, 65. Four unmarried children will live with him and his wife. Across-the-board price increases put marriage out of reach.
One of Tehran’s newest areas, District 22, is under construction on the northwestern edge of the city. It consists of apartment high-rises and shopping malls arranged around an artificial lake called Chitgar.
Maryam Alidadi and her husband bought an 82-square-meter (880 square feet) apartment here in December, downsizing by a third from their rented home in a more affluent area.
“Our standard of living has dropped considerably,” she said, adding that she now regrets having quit her government job four years ago when her son Rami was born.
The US sanctions have proven particularly devastating for Iran’s large middle class, said Dadpay, the finance professor. “This is the economic class that depends on the global economy, depends on their skillsets, and most of them are earning fixed incomes,” he said.
The economic freefall could shape Iran’s domestic politics, with parliament elections in February posing the first test. Middle class voters have traditionally favored reformist candidates but might sit out voting because of a lack of alternatives, inadvertently boosting hard-liners.
Pro-reform politicians who favor a greater opening to the West are closely linked to the nuclear deal.
With the deal faltering, the hard-liners, including the Revolutionary Guard, are becoming more entrenched, said Geranmayeh, the analyst.
The Guard, she said, “is going to be a force to be reckoned with for many years to come.”

Automechanika Riyadh opens, featuring leading global suppliers

Updated 25 February 2020

Automechanika Riyadh opens, featuring leading global suppliers

  • Saudi auto deals grew 40 percent last year with influx of female buyers

RIYADH: Leading names in the global auto services industry are out in force at Automechanika Riyadh — which opened on Monday at Al Faisaliah Hotel — vying to increase their share of a growing market expected to reach a value of $10.15 billion by 2023.

Automechanika Riyadh is the regional arm of the world’s largest trade fair, congress and event organizer, Messe Frankfurt, which has licensed the Automechanika brand to event organizer Al Harithy Company for Exhibitions (ACE) Group.

Mansour Abdullah Al-Shathri, vice chairman of the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce, inaugurated the trade event, which will run from Feb. 24-26.

It was revealed that Saudi auto deals grew approximately 40 percent last year, with female buyers accounting for between 10-15 percent of sales after the landmark decision to allow women to drive in the Kingdom for the first time.  

“International suppliers are stepping up their marketing for the resurgence in Saudi’s market, and this impacts the entire supply chain,” said Mahmut Gazi Bilikozen, show director for Automechanika Riyadh.

“While there is growth potential in the market, it is becoming a more competitive landscape and one which will also have to contend with evolving customer preferences. The conditions are ripe for new business relationships for those wishing to succeed in this transformative environment,” he added.

Zahoor Siddique, vice president of ACE, said: “Future vehicles will become more complex and challenging for the aftermarket industry. It is therefore imperative for manufacturers, local garages, technicians and mechanics to upskill and remain above the curve. 

 “Automechanika Riyadh is one such platform that can enable us to share and learn what the industry needs to unleash its potential.”

Two major US players — disc pad producer Giant Manufacturing and United Motors Mopar, the Kingdom’s sole distributor of Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Fiat cars — forecast a bullish market over the next few years.

Giant’s vice president, Eli Youssian, said he believed car sales in the Kingdom would grow by 9 percent annually until 2025, while United Motors District CEO Hassan Elshamarani expected another three million female drivers to be on the Kingdom’s roads by the end of the year.

Both Giant and United Motors launched new products at the show, with the former rolling out its new German-engineered Euro Premium Metallic Disc brake pads, and the latter introducing its Magneti Marelli spare parts.

The high potential of the new-look Saudi automotive landscape has also struck a major chord with South Korean suppliers.

The show’s Korean pavilion is hosting new-to-market entrants and existing suppliers all looking for business partners. With products from wiper blades to filters and air-conditioning parts to brake pads, the Korean contingent was positive about the Kingdom’s prospects.

One exhibitor, D Only Automotive, is looking to ring fence 10 percent of the Saudi brake market. “With more vehicles on the road, demand for brakes will increase, (so) we believe this is possible,” said President Jeon JaeWon.

Global research and analytics firm Aranca — Automechanika’s knowledge partner — has forecast that Saudi Arabia’s automotive spare parts and service market will grow at approximately 6 percent over the next five years to reach a value of $10.15 billion by 2023.

“The spare parts and service market for passenger cars alone is expected to eclipse $6.9 billion by 2023,” said Vishal Sanghavi, Aranca’s automotive practice head.