News, views and commentary from the telecoms sector across emerging markets and developing countries worldwide

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Zain (Africa) Speculation Watch: Episode 11 - Enter Etisalat?

Etisalat's Jamal al-Jarwan: "We are interested in Zain."

Episodes of the Zain Africa Speculation Watch mini-series are not usually aired on consecutive days. A highly relevant news item yesterday from John Irish of Reuters, however, could not pass without comment here.

Irish reports that Jamal al-Jarwan, CEO of International Investments at the UAE's Etisalat has told the news agency that his firm is interested in buying a 51% stake in Kuwait's Zain group. The Etisalat man, however, declined to comment on whether the Abu Dhabi-headquartered group was already talking to Zain about the possibility of taking a stake. Reuters was also quick to pick up a 'no comment' response from Zain spokesman Ibrahim Adel.

Intriguing stuff, then. Given that in the African context, the Zain and Etisalat footprints only overlap in Nigeria, and given that Jamal al-Jarwan has said his company is interested in Zain "as a whole", I suppose we must assume that the UAE telco is equally keen on the Kuwaiti firm's African and Middle Eastern assets. This opens up the possibility of a rather different scenario than the one discussed at length here and elsewhere in recent weeks, i.e. the prospect of a Europe-based group such as Vivendi acquiring just Zain's African operations.

How likely, then, is a deal of this kind? I can't even begin a detailed analysis here today, but perhaps it's worth observing that Etisalat's 2Q results suggest the company is in better health than some might have expected. While the UAE telco's 2Q net profit of USD 656.1 million was down 19% percent from a year earlier, this beat forecasts from analysts surveyed by Reuters earlier this month. The news agency's Firouz Sedarat reported that Etisalat is confident its growth in revenues achieved will help the telco to expand and develop its national and international business units. The company reports reduced operational expenditure in the first half of this year and a strategy of being more selective than before in choosing its international investments. Sedarat writes that Etisalat has been expanding overseas as it faces stiffer competition in its home market, where some analysts have predicted that job cuts could reduce the population, thereby impacting on the company's profits and those of rival telco du.

Acquiring a controlling interest in Zain would certainly be an aggressive continuation of this international expansion strategy.

A more modest - but nevertheless significant - move would be the purchase of a unified fixed/mobile licence in Libya. The availability of this concession was discussed here just a few days ago. At the time, I focused a bit more on the interest that Turkcell is said to have expressed in this opportunity. Now, though, we have more information about Etisalat's potential bid, thanks once again to John Irish of Reuters, who wrote yesterday that the UAE telco would invest at least USD 500 million in the network if it won the competition.

Dubai-based journalist Peter Cooper agrees that geographical diversification into emerging markets could be a powerful counterbalance to the numerous challenges Etisalat faces at home in the UAE. However, Cooper feels there exists the possibility that overseas investments "may not shine or [may] even prove disappointing" and that growth for the company may be difficult to achieve. Cooper reckons "a fair assessment might be that Etisalat is entering a period of stagnation or modest decline" and that the only strategy for safeguarding or raising profits, therefore, is to cut the cost-base. He notes that many large corporations around the world are currently going through this painful process, and after a long period of high growth it would be surprising if useful economies could not be found in any company. Staffing levels are the most obvious focal point for any strategic review at Etisalat, Cooper believes, along with a review of operational efficiency.

Peter Cooper's article was written ahead of the announcement of Etisalat's interest in acquiring a controlling interest in Zain. I wonder how far this development will cause him and others to revise their view of the UAE group's prospects?

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