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Etisalat, the United Arab Emirates state telecommunications group, is keen to expand rapidly into new markets, and has accumulated a sizeable war chest to do so.
At the weekend it beat China Telecom and SingTel to the punch to secure a 26 per cent stake and management contract for the Pakistan Telecommunications Company (PTCL).
Despite delays caused by PTCL worker protests, Pakistan's privatisation committee pressed on with an open auction and deemed Etisalat the winner after it bid $2.6bn for the stake, over $1bn more than its nearest rival China Telecom.
Etisalat is not alone in its eagerness to expand within and beyond the Gulf. With the exception of Saudi Arabia, all the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) states are members of the World Trade Organisation, and membership rules require that they begin to liberalise their telecoms sectors by this year. As it negotiates bilateral free trade agreements with the majority of GCC states, the US is also piling on pressure for reform.
Threatened with the loss of their monopolies, and cash-rich thanks to oil-fuelled economic growth, state-owned and private telecoms companies have been battling it out for every opportunity they can find.
Awais Leghari, Pakistan's minister of information technology, said of Etisalat's offer: “We are very happy with the bid, which is beyond our expectations.”
Mr Leghari might be forgiven for feeling smug. Not only has Etisalat provided a buyer in a deal Islamabad has been seeking to conclude for years, but its bid was at a 74 per cent premium to Friday's close on the Karachi Stock Exchange.
Some analysts believe Etisalat paid over the odds simply to secure access to Pakistan's 150m consumers. One Dubai-based analyst described the deal as “simply crazy” because Etisalat did not even get a controlling stake for its money.
Etisalat this month said it had passed the 4m mobile subscriber mark in its home UAE market, giving a penetration rate of 95 per cent. It cleared a $925m profit for 2004 even after paying 50 per cent of net profits as a royalty to the state.
However, on May 7 the UAE's new Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) announced that a licence for a second operator would be awarded in July.
Like Etisalat, the new operator will be able to offer a full range of mobile, fixed line and internet services, and it will be an Emirate company.
Knowing this was going to happen, Etisalat began hunting for overseas opportunities last year and made headlines with a successful $3.45bn bid for the second mobile licence in neighbouring Saudi Arabia.
A dedicated subsidiary, Etisalat International, was created in March to handle these international investments. Signing a $1bn partnership deal with Hong Kong-based Huawei Technology Investments on June 1, Obaid bin Mes'har, chief executive, said that Etisalat International would invest $10bn overseas by 2008, and he expects to be operating in 12 African countries by the end of this year.
Etisalat is also a member of a consortium considering a bid for a 55 per cent stake in Turkey's state fixed-line operator Turk Telekom.
Kuwait-based Mobile Telecommunications Company (MTC) is another operator seeking to push out from its core markets. It acquired Netherlands-based Celtel International for $3.4bn in March, buying operations in 13 African countries to add to its businesses in Kuwait, Bahrain, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon. The company now claims to serve 9.5m customers, and plans to grow its customer base to 15m by 2011.
In Oman, an IPO of 30 per cent of the stock of state incumbent Oman Telecommunications Company (OmanTel) is under way with the dual purpose of stimulating the Muscat securities market and raising fresh capital for expansion.
It is unclear whether all the Gulf telcos will prosper in the face of increasing liberalisation and the fight for foreign assets. But at least for now it is “cheque books at dawn” for those with the stomach for it.
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