M&A back on the agenda

The region's telco sector looks set for massive change if recent M&A rumours are anything to go by

Tags: Etisalat International - UAEMTN GroupMergers and acquisitionsOrascom Telecom Holding
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M&A back on the agenda Recent deals point to a growing convergence of the telecom sectors in the Middle East, Africa and India. (Getty Images)
By  Roger Field Published  June 2, 2010

Reports that the UAE's incumbent operator Etisalat is keen to take an equity stake in India's second biggest mobile operator, Reliance Communications, is yet another indication that M&A is firmly back on the agenda in the region's telecom sector.

But while much of the M&A activity in the years running up to the financial crisis was founded on bravado and a philosophy based on 'growth at any cost', the recent deals that have been mooted are of a very different nature.

Whether looking at Bharti Airtel's decision to acquire most of Zain's African assets, MTN's desire to buy operations from Orascom, or Etisalat's rumoured pitch for a stake in Reliance Communications, this new breed of deal is based on a more strategic attempt to create economies of scale while also strengthening existing foreign investments.

While some analysts believe Bharti Airtel might have a tough time extracting a decent profit from some of Zain's African operations, it is reasonable to assume that the Indian operator, which has proven adept at generating profits from extremely low ARPU markets in parts of India, will be able to replicate the model in Africa.

MTN's interest in Orascom also makes sense, given the geographic fit of their assets and the fact that MTN will soon be facing increased competition from Bharti in some of its African markets.

In the same way, Etisalat's rumoured interest in taking a significant equity stake - perhaps up to 45% - in Reliance Communications, also appears to be based on sound reasoning from both parties.

As India's second biggest operator, Reliance no doubt watched Bharti's acquisition of Zain's African assets with a certain amount of envy.

If, as reports suggest, Etisalat is interested in eventually taking a 45% stake in Reliance, the deal would give both operators a genuine vested interest in each other's markets, which for Reliance could mean a foot in the door in Africa.

Furthermore, Etisalat, which has operations in Benin, Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, Gabon, the Ivory Coast, Egypt, Niger, Nigeria, would almost certainly benefit from Reliance's experience of operating in low ARPU markets, particularly in the light of recent reports suggesting that many of its foreign operations are struggling.

Indeed, according to a recent State Audit Institution report in the UAE, Etisalat made an AED1.24bn ($338m) loss across ten of its overseas operations in 2009.

Etisalat, which spent some $900 million for a 45% stake in an Indian telecom operation in 2008, would also find an equity stake in Reliance a far more lucrative project than battling away with Etisalat DB, its Indian operation which is yet to launch in 15 circles of India that are already fiercely competitive.

While the rumoured deals between MTN and Orascom, and Etisalat and Reliance, may ultimately amount to little, the reasoning behind the deals at least indicates a far greater level of maturity than has been seen in the past. It also points to some interesting times to come.

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