Is it going to be an Asian or Middle East groom for South Africa’s MTN bride?

Telecoms

Bharti Airtel is still definitely in, Etisalat has expressed a tentative interest, but Vodafone and China Mobile can be counted out in the guessing game of who is wooing MTN.

Since Indian operator Bharti confirmed "exploratory talks" towards acquiring 51% of MTN, speculation has been rife about which other operators may decide to make a move.

UK-based Vodafone said it had "no intention of pursuing a bid for MTN". Vodafone holds 50% of Vodacom, but that did not prevent speculation about a deal to sell its shares to Telkom, the other joint owner, and invest in MTN instead. Another theory was that Vodafone could hang on to its Vodacom stake , but buy MTN's networks in 20 other countries instead.

But the thumb-sucking has been quashed with Vodafone spokesman Simon Gordon saying it was interested in owning more of Vodacom, not less. "We are committed to our shareholding in Vodacom. "If the opportunity presented itself to increase that, we would look at it, as we've said in the past."

Etisalat of the United Arab Emirates is eyeing MTN as part of its expansion plans, its chairman Mohammed Omran said in Cairo. "We are always looking for expansion in Africa. We are evaluating MTN, among other companies."

Within four years Omran wants Etisalat to earn at least a quarter of its revenue from Africa. It already serves 51-million users in 16 countries, and has spent $5bn over four years to launch in Egypt and Saudi Arabia and to buy into a Pakistani operator. In December, it said it would buy 16% of an Indonesian operator.

In parallel, Batelco’s CEO announced that his company to acquire one of the leading telecom players in Africa in a deal worth around $2-4 billion, according to its chief executive. Peter Kaliaropoulos, CEO of the Bahrain-based operator, said it was in the process of finalising the deal, but he did not say which company Batelco was acquiring. However, he did say the deal would be concluded by the fourth quarter of this year and that it would go a long way into helping Batelco offset rising competition in the Middle East.

China Mobile, the world's largest cellular operator by user numbers, said it is interested in South Africa, but not in MTN.

Meanwhile Bharti is said to be raising its offer, which sources originally pegged at R165 a share. The Asian Wall Street Journal quoted an unnamed source as saying it would now offer R175 a share, and that an official bid may come this week. Local investors in MTN have said they would not consider less than R200, although that positioning may change if a firm offer is made.

Bharti has won the support of a major investor, Azmi Mikati, CEO of M1 Group, which also owns 9,82% of MTN.

Business Day and ITP