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Mideast Carriers Line Up Credit

Expansion fever is hitting telecom operators in the Middle East, with plans being fueled by billions of dollars in credit facilities secured in recent weeks.

Countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt are experiencing rapid subscriber growth. But in the smaller, more saturated Middle East markets and those in the process of liberalization, carriers have been prompted to look farther afield for investment opportunities.

Here's a rundown of who's gotten what:

  • Bahrain Telecommunications Co. (Batelco) recently signed a three-year $485 million syndicated loan that was oversubscribed from its original $300 million. In a statement, Batelco CEO Peter Kaliaropoulos said the operator plans "to tap into growing markets larger than Bahrain either directly or with partners."

    Batelco, one of three carriers awarded fixed-line licenses in Saudi Arabia last month, has said it plans to invest around $500 million in the Saudi market during the next five to six years. (See Groups Bid for Saudi License.) In March, Batelco acquired a 20 percent stake in Sabafon, the largest mobile operator in Yemen, for $144 million.

  • Egyptian operator Mobinil -- owned by Orange (NYSE: FTE) and Orascom Telecom -- was granted a 2.3 billion Egyptian pound ($400 million), seven-year loan last month, a deal it's set to sign in the coming weeks. MobiNil and rival Vodafone Egypt are being joined by United Arab Emirates carrier Etisalat , which soft-launched a 3G network in the country on May 1, having paid $2.94 million for the license last year.

  • Etisalat's Saudi operator, Etihad Etisalat Co. (Mobily) , has signed a $2.88 billion financing agreement to fund its network expansion. Vodafone Egypt has also taken out a loan, raising EGP4 billion ($695.77 million).

  • Qatar Telecom QSC (Qtel) , the incumbent operator in Qatar, has been making preparations for the liberalization of its market later this year, arranging a $2 billion credit facility last November to finance expansion abroad. It acquired Kuwait-based Wataniya Telecom in March for $3.72 billion. (See Qtel Gets $2B Credit.)

    Qtel signed off on the facility this week and also announced it’s teaming up with Saudi Arabian firm Atco to buy a 75 percent stake in Pakistan's Burraq Telecom for $12.3 million. (See Qtel Closes $2B Credit.)

  • Wataniya, which operates in 7 countries in the Middle East and Africa, has itself secured a loan for expansion -- announcing a $1 billion facility in February. (See Qtel Spends $3.7B for Wataniya Stake.)

  • UAR-based Oger Telecom has signed a $3.7 billion refinancing agreement. That money will help Oger pay the Turkish government $4.31 billion, outstanding from its acquisition of a 55 percent stake in Turk Telecom, four years ahead of schedule.

    Oger CEO Paul Doany told Thomson Reuters in March that the company, which delayed a $1.25 billion IPO in London last year, has between $4 billion and $5 billion to spend on acquisitions and wants to make two purchases before it attempts to go public again in 2008. He said Oger is looking at four possibilities in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and is also keeping an eye for the impending privatization of Kazakhtelecom.

    Cash flowing
    The loans being granted to Middle Eastern carriers are in some cases touted as the largest ever granted to businesses in these countries. The financing is supported by strong revenue and earnings growth as service providers find themselves flush with cash, thanks in part to the oil boom.

    Qtel on Monday reported a 52.6 percent year-over-year increase in first-quarter revenues to $415.3 million and a 15 percent rise in net profit to $119.8 million. Nawras, its subsidiary in Oman, saw a 91 percent growth in revenues to $48.6 million.

    Wataniya posted a 283 percent increase in net profit to $88.4 million for the first quarter, on a 34 percent increase in revenues to $315.8 million.

    MobiNil reported Monday that its net income rose 28 percent to $70 million, on the back of a 21 percent increase in revenues to $313 million.

    Mobily saw its net income jump 578.4 percent to $66.9 million in its first quarter, compared to $9.9 million in same quarter last year. Mobily's revenues grew by 66.4 percent, from $301.3 million to $501.3 million.

    Mobily's growth came at the expense of incumbent Saudi Telecom Co. (STC) , which is the only large Middle Eastern operator that is yet to make an acquisition abroad. STC's net income fell 20.5 percent during the first quarter to $725.6 million. Analysts had expected an 11.7 percent decline.

    STC says it can raise up to $15 billion in debt financing to make one or two large acquisitions in Africa or Asia.

    — Nicole Willing, Reporter, Light Reading

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