‘It’s a difficult target to reach,’ says Atlantique marketing manager Khaled al-Tenaiji. ‘But with the network and the range of services we’re offering, we can do it. We’ve had to stop selling services. We ran out of SIM cards and the network could not support the demand.’

Omran’s request for a three-fold increase in subscribers reflects Etisalat’s confidence in the potential of the sub-Saharan African market, where penetration is low and coverage is poor. Penetration is 8 per cent across Atlantique’s seven West African markets, which have a total population of 61 million.

Starting from a low base, Africa has been the fastest growing GSM market over the past two years and Etisalat is just one Middle East company eyeing opportunities there. It already has a share in mobile operator Zanzibar Telecom (Zantel) and offers fixed-line services through its stakes in Sudan’s Sudatel and Canartel, as well as satellite services across the continent through the UAE’s Thuraya Satellite Telecommunications Company. It is pursuing the third GSM licence in Senegal and one in Mali. ‘Because of the potential [in these

markets], Etisalat is going directly,’ says Al-Tenaiji. ‘It doesn’t want to share the revenue.’

Another regional telco giant, Kuwait’s MTC, through its wholly owned subsidiary Celtel International, has stakes in 15 markets in sub-Saharan Africa. It is looking at opportunities to acquire licences in Senegal and Ghana and is tracking developments in Angola, where a third licence is expected to be tendered this year, as well as Ethiopia.

When Celtel started up in 1998, there were 2 million subscribers in Africa. Today, there are 150 million and by 2011, this figure is projected to reach 350 million subscribers. Of this total, Celtel expects 50 million new customers to be in Nigeria.

To gain a foothold in one of Africa’s most populous and promising markets, Celtel acquired a 65 per cent share in Nigeria’s Vmobile in May. Vmobile had 5 million customers when the stake was purchased and, in a market of 128 million people, its customer base is set to grow. ‘Nigeria is one of the most interesting markets,’ says Celtel chief

executive officer (CEO) Marten Pieters. ‘It has an active economy, oil income and an educated population. Nigerians outside the country go back and it’s a market with more spending power.’

In sub-Saharan Africa, Middle East telcos are venturing into a market vastly different from their home territories. ‘Africa is very different from the rest of the world,’ says Pieters. ‘There are logistical problems with roads and electricity is very often not available at all.’ In addition to infrastructure development, the customer profile in Africa is markedly different from the Middle East. The African market is almost exclusively made up of prepaid customers demanding voice and some short message services (SMS). Customers are not subsidised, as they are elsewhere with free handsets, and must be immediately profitable. This is despite low and falling average revenue per user (ARPU) of $10-20 a month. Communications consultant Arab Advisors Group put average ARPU for operators in the Middle East at $26 a month in 2005. ‘The majority of African customers have low disposable incomes and look for simple services at the lowest cost. A very small group of people can afford internet services,’ says Pieters.

In the Middle East, where markets are close to saturation and spending power is high, the focus is on driving new services and technologies, such as third-generation (3G), multimedia messaging (MMS) and video streaming. The UAE has