Many of the trading booths on the floor of the Abu Dhabi Securities Exchange stood empty with the lights turned off yesterday, still bearing the names of companies that shut down last year.
More than half the brokerages in the country have closed in the past two years, as foreign investors fled with the onset of the global financial crisis.
"We are all living in hope that foreigners will come back with heavy buying like in the past," said Tamer Ali, a broker at Al Wathba Shares & Bonds Centre, as he awaited calls from clients.
Data released by the stock market regulator yesterday showed that foreign investment was still virtually absent from the Dubai and Abu Dhabi exchanges.
Having swamped the exchanges with Dh2.63 billion (US$716 million) in 2009, foreign investors withdrew Dh54m in 2010. Last year they crept back in with Dh224m, the Securities and Commodities Authority (SCA) revealed in its annual report.
"Foreigners are investing and they are slowly looking at us," said Haissam Arabi, the chief executive at Gulfmena Investments in Dubai.
"But for them to take us more seriously, we need to develop our capital markets and make them more attractive: by developing their maturity and depth; rules and regulations; in addition to offering more visibility related to whether we can see an upgrade to emerging-market status."
MSCI, an index company whose benchmarks of which are tracked by fund managers controlling about $3 trillion of assets, in December delayed for a second time a decision on whether to upgrade the UAE to emerging-market status.
The country is classified as a "frontier market", considered riskier by investors.
Bankers and traders have called for reforms and more transparency to help revive confidence.
Unlike previous years, the SCA this year omitted a summary of trading violations committed last year in its annual report.
The report was the only source of data about such malpractices.