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Nine bidders for 3rd Saudi mobile licence

Prince Alwaleed's Kingdom Holding is among those vying for a slice of the Gulf's largest telecom market.

Consortiums led by Egypt's Orascom Telecom, South Africa's MTN, and Kuwait's Mobile Telecommunications Co. (MTC) are among those vying for a third mobile licence in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf's largest telecom market, the regulator said on Saturday.

Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil exporter, is selling its third mobile phone licence and also plans to end the fixed line monopoly of Saudi Telecom Co. this year as it liberalises its market.

Other consortiums in the race include Kingdom Holding Co., owned by billionaire Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal which is bidding with Turkish mobile operator Turkcell, and Dubai-based Oger Telecom, controlled by Lebanon's al-Hariri family, Sultan al-Malik, spokesman for the Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC), told Reuters.

A CITC statement named the other four consortiums as Reliance Telecom with local partner Abdullah Adbulaziz Al-Rajhi, Samawat with Bharti, Al Shoula with MTNL, and Digicel with Tawasul.

"We will evaluate the applications in the coming weeks," Malik said, without giving a specific date.

The regulator did not give values for the bids it received.

Orascom, MTC, and Oger Telecom had earlier voiced interest in bidding, eager to tap a market where penetration rates are expected to jump.

STC and Etihad Etisalat (Mobily) together share 76% market share that could grow to 95% within two years, said Marc Hammoud, senior telecom analyst at Dubai-based investment bank Shuaa Capital.

"The companies I see battling fiercely are MTC and Orascom," he said.

Bids could surpass the 12.21 billion riyals paid by a consortium led by UAE-based Emirates Telecommunications Co. (Etisalat) for Mobily, Hammoud said.

"They have announced that they don't have any problem paying more than the amount paid for the second licence. They want to enter the Saudi market," he said.

Pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat on Saturday quoted unidentified sources as saying the kingdom could get as much as 20 billion riyals ($5.33 billion) from the licence sale.

Hammoud said average revenue per user is about $33 per month in Saudi Arabia compared with $12 in Egypt.

Mobily, in which Etisalat holds a 35% stake, captured 30% of the market within 18 months of launching in May 2005.

In December, the regulator extended deadlines on bids for the third mobile licence and the second fixed-line licence by up to six weeks to give investors more time to submit bids.