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Sunday, 5 July 2009

Double A Side: Zain Africa Speculation Watch: Episode 8 + Iran 3rd Mobile Licence Saga Update

Vivendi's Lévy: no comment on Zain Africa rumours
Picture: ⓒ 2008 The IBTimes Company

Intrepid reporters from Reuters can often be relied upon to grab telecoms big hitters on the sidelines of conferences and other events. Reuters people seem to be well trained in the dark art of thrusting a mic at the luminaries and bagging a headline-worthy quote.

Last month, for example, the ambitions of Russian cellco MTS were revealed to a Reuters scribe on the sidelines of the of the St Petersburg Economic Forum.

This week, however, the news service has done quite so well. A Reuters reporter sprang on Jean-Bernard Lévy, Chairman of French media and telecoms conglomerate Vivendi, who was present yesterday at a forum in Aix-en-Provence, France. Regular readers of this blog, particularly those gripped by the drama of Zain Africa Speculation Watch the mini-series should be able to guess which question was asked. The answer? Not too illuminating.

Levy declined on Saturday to say whether his company is interested in acquiring the African operations of Kuwaiti telecoms group Zain. "I have no comment to make on this," was Lévy's reply.

So we are none the wiser - unless you're the kind of conspiracy theorist who infers something significant from such a minimal response.

I was one of those for whom the notion of Zain selling its African operations popped up out of nowhere. I remembered colleagues returning from a pan-African telecoms sector conference and reporting that Chris Gabriel, CEO of Zain's African unit had spoken in terms of having a war chest for further acquisitions. Much had also been made of Zain's stated ambition of being a major global player and of the strategic important of Africa in that context.

Zain Africa Speculation Watch kicked off on on 12th June, almost as soon as I had started to hear rumours. Another reason this was all rather surprising was that only days before that, there had been suggestions that Zain might be looking to acquire a significant asset on the African continent -France Telecom's stake in market-leading Egyptian cellco Mobinil. Readers interested in that part of the world cannot have failed to notice the long wrangle that has gone on between France Telecom and the other major shareholder in Mobinil, Orascom Telecom, itself a Cairo-headquartered company.

This tussle seems to have been initiated when the two sides found themselves at variance over strategy for Mobinil. According to Alastair Sharp, the Egyptians were keen to invest more heavily than the French wished to, disagreeing over Mobinil's budget and expenditure, marketing strategy and start up of 3G services. Since kicking off in April, this has become quite a heated business, with famously outspoken Orascom Telecom Chairman Naguib Sawiris accusing France Telecom of being "in the business of value destruction".

Sneaking onto the end of today's musings - by virtue of being Zain-related - is the matter of Iran's third national mobile licence. In common with Zain Africa Speculation Watch and the Sawiris-France Telecom battle, this is another fairly long-running story to which it is probably not unfair to apply the label 'saga'.

The saga started with the UAE's Etisalat and local partners winning the valuable Iranian concession, which comes with a useful period of exlusivity regarding the provision of 3G services. This later went sour and by mid-May, I was noting here that Zain appeared to be waiting in the wings to pick up the licence and get into the large, growing and still helpfully under-penetrated Iranian mobile market.

This is now looking unlikely.

On Friday, TeleGeography was picking up reports from an Iranian newspaper which indicated that a new tender will be held to find a strategic investor to launch the country’s third national mobile network. Iran’s telecoms minister Mohammad Soleimani was quoted as saying that Zain had been offered the third operating licence in May, but had "not fulfilled obligations".

A Cellular News take on the same story talks in terms of confusion about whether Zain had not only been "offered" this licence but had also actually secured it, mentioning reports from mid-May about the Kuwaiti company having been "awarded" the concession.

The article continues, however, by noting that Zain said it had only been invited to renew its negotiations as the leader of the consortium that came second in the original bid process. As the article states, "if Zain was formally awarded the license, then it has kept very quiet about it."

For seasoned Iran watchers, this is all a bit déjà vu. As the Cellular News piece reminds us, there was also controversy over the country's second national mobile licence. This had been snapped up by a company 51% owned by Turkcell in 2004, but the deal fell foul of a clamp down on foreign investments by conservative forces in Iran. The Turkish cellco was accused of having links with Israel - clearly a complete no-no. After a year of wrangling, the licence was reissued to South Africa's MTN, which was happy with a minority stake in the new operator.

Two sagas, then, that I enjoying watching. Happily, a little news about both was breaking at around the same time. Hence this Double A Side update from DTW.

Double A Side? Use of that term betrays the fact that I'm old enough to have been brought up on vinyl. Having turned over a chunk of Sunday to writing this, perhaps I'll slap something mellow on the turntable and just leave the sagas to one side for now.

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