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Kuwait’s Kharafi says committed to Zain

Kharafi Group not looking to sell its stake in Zain; Zain to keep existing mobile licences; Zain targets ISPs, submarine cables, bets on data to lift revenue

November 23, 2011 10:57 by



Major Zain shareholder Kharafi Group, which has twice tried to sell its stake in the Kuwaiti telecoms operator, will now stick with its holding as the firm embarks on expansion plans.

Bader al-Kharafi, whose family and related companies are thought to control about a quarter of Zain, and who sits on the company’s board, also told Reuters in an interview that Zain would not be selling any of its seven mobile licences and planned to acquire Internet service providers to boost data revenue.

Kharafi’s family conglomerate, which directly owns about 16 percent of the telecoms group, remains committed to Zain, he said, dismissing speculation the family needed to sell up.

Kharafi Group has led two consortia that agreed to sell a controlling stake in Zain. The last deal, a $12 billion sale to the UAE’s Etisalat, collapsed in March.

When asked if the family was looking to sell its holdings in Zain, Kharafi said: “No, we are not.”

Kharafi has emerged as a higher profile figure in the family conglomerate since the death of his father, Nasser al-Kharafi, in April. The senior Kharafi built a business empire that spans real estate, retail and financial services and is core to the Gulf state’s economy.

It owns stakes in Kuwait Food Co, National Investments Co and National Industries Group .

Kharafi said Zain would focus on implementing a new strategy, which has been approved by the board and management.

“We are keeping all the assets and we are focusing on improving them and investing in them,” Kharafi said in an interview at his Kuwait City office.

“The board is aligned. This is a new board and we have approved our new vision, which is going into data, acquiring ISPs (internet service providers) and submarine cables.”

Bitter disagreement among Zain’s board over the Etisalat deal was among the reasons the UAE operator walked away.

Zain shareholders elected a new board in April, including Kharafi, prompting one former member who was not re-elected and had opposed the Etisalat deal to launch legal action.

A Kuwaiti court in September ruled the board meeting void, but Zain has appealed and the latest hearing is expected this week.

“We are confident we did everything by the book and according to the laws and regulations,” said Kharafi, acknowledging that Zain’s day-to-day operations were affected by the protracted Etisalat discussions.

“During the year we were working on the deal, there wasn’t really a vision of putting more capex (capital expenditure),” said Kharafi. “It was tough to make such huge decisions on behalf of the company during that process.”

In 2010, Zain sold most of its African assets to India’s Bharti Airtel for $9 billion, reducing its footprint from 23 countries to just seven and ending its plans to become a top 10 global telecom player. The deal enabled Zain to pay out about $5.78 billion in two dividends.

“Zain’s dividends weren’t paid out because of liquidity issues in the Kharafi group,” he said. “The reason shareholders invest in a company is to get returns and Zain made a good profit from selling Africa so why keep that cash on the balance sheet?”

Zain’s shares are down 40 percent in 2011, ending Monday at a 21-month low while the Kuwait index has fallen 17 percent this year.

Like other Gulf operators, Zain is betting on data to help offset falling voice margins as mobile subscriber growth stagnates.

The operator may also acquire new mobile licences or buy other operators if the price is right, Kharafi said, and the telecom player may spin off its network operations.

“It makes much more sense for the operator to lease the network from a separate company and give them the headache of the operational expenses,” said Kharafi, adding Zain could set up network management companies in conjunction with rival operators.

Zain, in which Kuwait government and associated institutions also hold an estimated 30 percent stake, operates mobile licences in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Bahrain. Its total consolidated debt is $1.9 billion, while its available cash is $1.4 billion.

In October, affiliate Zain Saudi, where Kharafi is also a board member, announced plans to raise new capital.

“Zain is committed to be part of that capital increase,” said Kharafi. (By Matt Smith; Editing by Amran Abocar and Andrew Callus)



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