And the market is jumping. The Atlas Market Index appreciated by more than 15 per cent in the six weeks to 9 December, driving up total gains this year to more than 62 per cent.

‘The action has been with the medium and small caps,’ says Omar al-Masri, managing director of Atlas Investment Group, the local investment bank recently acquired by Arab Bank. ‘In part, this has been the result of the mid-tier companies emerging from radical restructuring programmes and they are now putting out better numbers.’ Appetite for a group of mid caps has been further whetted by their exposure to the expanding qualified industrial zones (QIZs). ‘The property developers and others who are benefiting from the US export facing activity in the QIZs are performing well,’ says Al-Masri.

The year-long surge has been supported by deep liquidity. Local investors have been herded onto the ASE by the prevailing, sustained low interest rate environment. ‘With returns from deposit accounts so low, we are seeing money dislodged for the first time into domestic equities,’ says Al-Masri. Perhaps more important for the medium-to-long-term development of the market has been the arrival of greater volumes of institutional cash. Local pension funds and endowment funds are taking a more active approach to their domestic capital market activities and this has driven up both turnover and valuations.

‘We are also seeing Gulf investors taking positions,’ says Al-Masri. ‘Their own markets are booming but they are coming to Jordan for diversification within the Arab world.’

The spotlight might well stay on the ASE next year if a number of private sector initial public offerings (IPOs) currently under preparation finally come to market. ‘There are some family businesses, some conglomerates that are looking at their options and thinking about making equity offerings,’ says Al-Masri.

There are other plays to make. Atlas tips Cairo Amman Bank, Middle East Complex for Electronics & Heavy Engineering Industriesand Unified for Organising Land Transportto outperform in 2004.

The bluechips still demand attention. Arab Bank’s surge in early December – a response to Omar Khalid Shoman’s plans to sell an 11 per cent stake in the bank – was a reminder that it still is the bourse’s defining entity.

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