Biggest Gulf ETF Eyes Growth as Rift Ends, World Cup Nears

The end of an embargo on Qatar has come at a handy time for the Gulf’s biggest equity-focused exchange traded fund, just as the gas-rich country is set to get a boost from hosting one of the world’s most popular events.

Inflows to the Doha-based Al Rayan Qatar ETF jumped when news of the potential normalization of relations with Saudi Arabia emerged late last year. Daily volumes surged earlier this month as the end of a three-year rift that also included the United Arab Emirates was finally confirmed.

The Shariah-compliant ETF is listed in Doha, with a market capitalization of about $153 million, and has returned almost 19% since its inception in 2018. It allocates holdings to the 23 stocks currently in the QE Al Rayan Islamic Index. The fund started less than a year after the group of Arab countries cut ties with Qatar for allegedly supporting terrorist groups, an accusation Qatar has always denied.

Biggest Gulf ETF Eyes Growth as Rift Ends, World Cup Nears

Now, as Qatar gets ready to host the FIFA World Cup soccer tournament next year, the benefit for listed companies ranging from logistics to telecommunications and hospitality helps to build an investment case that could appeal to wealthy Saudi and Emirati individuals, according to the fund’s manager.

“Take this country of two and a half million and add 500,000 to a 1 million visitors over a two, or three-week period and the significance is obvious,” Akber Khan, senior director of asset management at Al Rayan Investment in Doha, said in an interview. “It’s not just the month-long tournament that’s important, it takes elaborate planning to execute.”

Economic activity is expected to accelerate in the year prior to the tournament, he said. “Kick off is 21 November, 2022, but well before that logistics, utilities, telecoms, retailers, banks will all benefit.”

Qatar’s benchmark QE Index, composed of 20 stocks, is up 4.1% this year, against a 2.7% increase for the QE Al Rayan Islamic Index.

Spreading the Word

It’s now time to remind potential investors in Riyadh, Jeddah, Abu Dhabi and Dubai of the attractions of the Qatar equity market, Khan said. “We certainly plan to be more active getting the word out across the region as soon as travel restrictions and Covid-19 lockdowns ease. For now, we will have to make do with webinars and video calls.”

While the Al Rayan fund might look tiny when compared to some traded in the U.S. and Europe, it stands out in a region where the product is still not widely available. There are three equity-focused ETFs listed in Saudi Arabia and one in the UAE, all with less than $20 million in assets.

“We invested time in trying to understand why previous ETFs in the region had not been successful,” Khan said. It took more than four years of talks with local regulators to come up with a framework that Al Rayan believed would allow the asset class to thrive.

Market reforms were introduced during this process, such as allowing short selling and permitting covered short-positions by brokers providing liquidity for the ETF. “It was critical to get all these things correct, otherwise the product life would have been very limited,” Khan said.

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