Today the pickings are lacklustre and, more often than not, the size of contracts is likely to be in the tens of millions rather than the hundreds – a search of the records revealed only five $100 million-plus contracts in the region in the past four years. Few markets – Iran and Yemen among them – still require major capacity, while a third GSM network in Egypt, where total penetration stands at only 13 per cent, remains one of the few real vendor opportunities.

‘In the GCC, competition is coming,’ Soenke Peters, vice-president and general manager of Siemens AG in Dubai, told MEED in October. ‘Network quality, service and features play a more important role as operators seek to differentiate themselves. On the one side, the GCC is driven by competition. Places such as Iran and Yemen are driven by capacity considerations.’ ‘This is the trend in network in general,’ says Walid Moneimne, Nokia Network Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA), senior vice-president. ‘When you start building coverage, it costs a lot of money. Obviously capacity costs less. There’s more fragmentation, but many things are contributing to the market continuing to be very dynamic.’

Several technology companies call on vast networks of expertise to sell a range of multi-disciplinary products. To keep revenues coming in, vendors have had to leverage their entire businesses to win the kind of contracts that matter. Alcatel’s $250 million Dubai Metro deal last year springs to mind. Ericsson, the US’ Motorola, Finland’s Nokia, Germany’s Siemens, and Huawei Technologies and ZTE, both of China, are also key players (see table, page 30).

‘All of those operations are doing really well in different areas,’ says Mark Rotter, programme manager, communications, at IDC’s Dubai office. ‘But as for longer-term contracts, in a few anecdotal examples this may be so, but I haven’t seen such evidence. It doesn’t make sense to me in terms of my understanding of the region.’

Data for the industry is notoriously difficult to collate, because operators often do not disclose contract details, because they may affect their competitive position or be long-term. However, it is clear that at least $1,250 million of telecoms-related deals have been won since 2002 in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). MEED data shows that Alcatel and Nokia have been leading players, winning 68 per cent of published contracts. Alcatel’s share, at nearly 44 per cent, is largest.

‘The overall picture is not straightforward, as many of the deals are not announced,’ Moneimne says, reeling off a list of 10 countries in which Nokia has been recently involved in GSM network operations and upgrades. ‘Using money as a methodology is akin to mixing apples and oranges.’

As the industry awaits the next -‘big thing’ and technologies such as 3G and Wimax are all the rage, successful implementation, with the exception of Bahrain and the UAE, appears to be some time off. Triple-play – the integration of voice, data and video in one handset – is also getting attention. In the past four years, the UAE, Libya and Algeria appear to have been the big spenders.

‘We are now at the tail-end of [network installation in the region], milking the last of what GSM has to offer,’ says Rotter. ‘But the telecoms spend is not defined by GSM only. Enhancements such as GPRS and EDGE are going to cost money – not as much as GSM, but they are big chunks of cash. Changes to base stations and central operations remain a sizeable investmen