UAE-based telecoms provider TECOM, now under ownership of Emirates Integrated Telecommunications Company, has outbid Etisalat to secure a place in the final round of bidding for Tunisie Telecom. TECOM bid US$1.75 billion for the 35% stake in the Tunisian incumbent, behind Vivendi Universal with US$1.8 billion and France Telecom, which put forward the highest bid of US$1.88 billion. All three now enter the third and final round of the privatisation process, while Etisalat, South Africa’s pan-African operator MTN and a consortium of Saudi Oger and Telecom Italia have been eliminated, submitting lower bids. The Saudi Oger-Telecom Italia partnership was reported to have bid US$1.57 billion.

The move by TECOM may come as a surprise to many, with the company now working within the auspices of EITC having been purchased for US$330 million in February. EITC is the company behind the UAE’s second operator, du, which is due to begin operations in the second half of 2006. Speaking to CommMEA earlier in the year, EITC chairman Ahmad Bin Byat said that the company’s focus would be purely on the domestic UAE market, with no mention of an interest in Tunisia. “This is an emirates company, its main focus is the emirates and I believe we have the world here,” he said.

Tunisie Telecom is the monopoly fixed-line operator in Tunisia and is estimated to control 72% of the country’s mobile market with 3.2 million subscribers at the end of last year. It also holds a 51% stake in Mauritania’s Mattel, which had 250,000 subscribers at the end of last year.

Last October, thirteen players were reported to have pre-qualified for the stake in the Tunisian telco – and included Bahrain’s Batelco, Saudi Telecom Company, Telefonica Portugal Telecom, Bouyges Telecom, and T-Mobile.