DOHA // A British billionaire arrived in Doha early yesterday, rode a jet-ski to the Museum of Islamic Art and, after a change of clothes, launched his first telecommunications venture in the region. "This is a good day for all in Qatar," said the Virgin Group chairman and founder Sir Richard Branson during a press conference for Virgin Mobile Qatar, a new partnership with local telecoms leader Qtel.
"Virgin Mobile is delighted to be here and we're not just announcing today, we're launching." The new service, available in stores and online, will be wholly owned by Qtel, which licensed the Virgin brand for an undisclosed sum. The deal represents the youth-oriented brand's first foray into the MENA region. "Qatar will be the first in the region to do this," said Nasser Marafih, the Qtel chief executive. "We are focusing on youth and young at heart because we believe the Virgin brand offers fun services."
Serving eight countries and 15 million customers worldwide, the UK-based Virgin Mobile offers pre-paid mobile service while piggybacking on a national network. In the US, Sprint Nextel provides the service's backbone. In the UK, it is T-mobile. Virgin Mobile Qatar officials said locals contributed to the look and feel of the new brand, the outlets and even the SIM cards. Its website contains a map of Doha with icons highlighting upcoming events, with links to Facebook, photos and video. "Its about connecting people not just to technology, but to each other and the hottest events around town," said Ed Jennings, the head of Virgin Mobile Qatar.
Mr Jennings said 60 per cent of Qataris were below 35 years of age and the average age of his staff was 27. "It's been built by the youth of Qatar, for the youth of Qatar." Virgin Mobile Qatar will offer only pre-paid service initially, selling 100 rial (Dh100.89), 50 rial and 20 rial top-up cards at six outlets across Doha. National and international calls will cost the same at all times. "What you see is what you get and I think people appreciate that," said Sir Richard.
Low prices mean Virgin Mobile is likely to take market share from Qtel. "Qtel would like to give its customers choices and this is one of the choices they can have," said Mr Marafih. Sir Richard is renowned for his sense of daring and grand promotional flourishes. He has appeared on several television shows and in films and has repeatedly tried to circumnavigate the globe in a balloon. This is not his only venture in Qatar. Virgin Health Bank is looking to build a stem-cell storage facility in Doha within the next year.
Virgin Mobile Qatar, meanwhile, plans to offer post-paid plans and other services in the near future and is looking to move into other countries. "This is the start of a much larger relationship with Qtel," said Sir Richard, "maybe on a global basis." firstname.lastname@example.org