Status of Tunisiana uncertain

Qtel's CEO says that the Tunisian government is currently evaluating what to do with the 25% of Tunisiana that is owned by Princessa Telecom

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BARCELONA // The Tunisian government is "reviewing" Princesse Holdings's stake in the telecommunications operator Tunisiana, the head of Qatar Telecom (Qtel) said.

Princesse Holdings, an investment company run by Mohamed Sakher al Materi - a son-in-law of the ousted president, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali - owns 25 per cent of the mobile operator.

Last November, Qtel agreed to purchase Orascom's 50 per cent holding in Orascom Telecom Tunisie, also known as Tunisiana, for US$1.2 billion (Dh4.4bn). The acquisition boosted Qtel's stake to 75 per cent of the operator, with Princesse Holdings owning the rest.

But with Mr Ben Ali and his family fleeing Tunisia during a popular uprising last month, it is unclear what will become of the family's investments.

Nasser Marafih, the group chief executive for Qtel, said the operator was in talks with the Tunisian government about the portion of Tunisiana that Qtel did not own.

"The government in Tunisia is reviewing that stake right now," Mr Marafih said. "It is under discussions and there has been no decision what to do with it."

Mr Marafih declined to say whether Qtel would be interested in buying the remaining stake in Tunisiana, but a full acquisition would be in line with the company's recent foreign expansion strategy.

"One of the things we're looking at is to strengthen our ownership and control of those companies that we have.

'That would also improve the profitability of [Qtel] and the return to shareholders," Mr Marafih said.

"The latest deal that we did in Tunisiana was in that direction. We consolidated our interest because it is a very profitable company and we believe we have a strong position in the market."

Tunisiana is the second-largest mobile operator in Tunisia, with 5.7 million subscribers.

Meanwhile, Mr Marafih said Qtel was not interested in bidding for Zain's Saudi Arabian unit, dismissing earlier speculation the company would make an offer for the mobile operator.