The deal was agreed at the beginning of 2007 but the full details are only now emerging. The size of the payment – which was made up of $90m for the shareholding and an additional $17m for an unpaid debt – was only revealed when Wataniya’s new owner, Qtel, published its latest financial results on 11 November.

The sale values Asiacell at $225m, just 1.25 times its net profits of $179.9m in 2006.

Every other floated telecoms company in the Middle East trades on a greater multiple of earnings. Qtel, Qatar’s monopoly telecoms operator, paid 27 times earnings ($3.7bn) for its 51 per cent stake in Wataniya in March.

Wataniya was forced to give up control of Asiacell in late 2006 when a group of Kurdish businessmen, who owned a majority holding in the company, filed for voluntary liquidation. The Iraqi operator’s management team, who all came from Wataniya, are thought to have fallen out with the Kurdish investors.

Wataniya received the payment on 21 September when Asiacell’s liquidator released the funds.

The sale will have a significant effect on Wataniya’s profit levels this year. Asiacell contributed KD19.9m ($72m) of the Kuwaiti firm’s net profits in 2006, 27 per cent of the total of KD73.2m.

Wataniya’s stake in Asiacell was bought by MerchantBridge, a Luxembourg-based investment bank that then partnered with the Kurdish businessmen to run the company.

The Iraqi operation continues to do well. It had 2.7 million subscribers at the start of 2007, and MerchantBridge’s managing partner Basil al-Rahman says: “The last time I looked we were heading up to 4 million subscribers.”

Rival Iraqi operator MTC-Atheer, which is owned by Kuwaiti telecoms giant Zain, says it had 3.8 million customers at the end of September. It generated revenues of $257.6m in the first six months of 2007.

Since the sale of Wataniya’s stake in Asiacell, Qtel has bought into the Iraqi operation. MerchantBridge sold 31 per cent of Asiacell to Qtel for an undisclosed sum in August.

MerchantBridge has held on to 18 per cent and the original Kurdish investors retain the remaining 51 per cent. (MEED 24:8:07).

On 17 August, Asiacell successfully bid for one of three mobile licences in Iraq with an offer of $1.25bn. The two other winners were Zain and Korek Telecom, a Kurdish mobile phone operator.