Etisalat has been confirmed as one of six telecommunications companies in the running for Syria's third mobile phone licence.
Regional and international operators are vying for a slice of the Syrian market, which is expected to double in size by 2014.
Just 48.2 per cent of Syria's population has mobile service, according to Arab Advisors Group research. In comparison, Saudi Arabia has a mobile penetration rate of 179.3 per cent, while in the UAE most people have at least two lines registered in their name.
Six Arab and foreign companies have submitted bids in the pre-qualifying stage for the new licence in Syria, according to the state-controlled Syria Arab News Agency (SANA).
Those vying are: Etisalat, STC of Saudi Arabia, Qtel of Qatar, Turkcell of Turkey, France Telecom and TAMCO of Iran.
France Telecom already has a presence in the region through its joint ownership of the Egyptian mobile phone operator Mobinil.
Two of the six companies in the running for the Syrian licence will be shortlisted before a final decision is made by Syria's ministry of telecommunications and technology, SANA reported.
The deadline for the final tender is expected to be in March and is to be followed by the awarding of the licence in April. The likely winner will be the one "bidding the most money", an industry source said.
At present, the incumbent operators Syriatel and MTN Syria have 10.2 million subscribers in Syria, according to SANA. Turkcell, one of the companies bidding for the new licence, made a previous attempt to acquire Syriatel but negotiations collapsed.
Charges for mobile phone use in Syria are 8 US cents (Dh0.29) per minute for post-paid users, according to Arab Advisors. This is the same average rate as in the UAE.
But analysts say mobile charges are relatively high compared with the average wage in Syria. Users there pay an average of US$18 each per month for cellular access in a country where the average monthly salary is $242, according to a survey by the Central Bureau of Statistics.
Jawad Abbassi, the founder and general manager of AAG, said the Syrian market held great promise.
"This is a market below its true potential, that is far from saturated," he said. "Once you have full competition, the market will double within three to four years. That's my prediction."
Etisalat, the UAE's largest telecoms operator, stated its desire to enter the Syrian market last year. The company could not immediately provide a comment when contacted by The National.
Etisalat has been aggressively expanding overseas and is active through subsidiaries or joint ventures in 17 countries outside the UAE, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and India.
In the first nine months of this year, Etisalat made 24 per cent of its revenue outside the UAE, compared with 17 per cent in the same period last year, according to a recent financial statement filed by the group.