Markets Outlook: As mobile markets become more saturated and revenues from voice decline, telecoms operators will be hard-pressed to find more profitable revenue streams to drive growth.
Positive outlook for telecoms leaders
As mobile markets become more saturated and revenues from voice decline, telecoms operators will be hard-pressed to find more profitable revenue streams to drive growth.
While the larger regional players continue to enjoy a robust financial position, revenues have been remaining flat for many as competition continues to stiffen.
"A lot of the big operating groups still have a lot of cash and high profits. However, the difficulties they face, which are apparent in their results, is that the region is becoming more competitive and the markets are becoming quite saturated," said Matthew Reed, the principal analyst of Middle East and Africa at Informa Telecoms and Media.
While Etisalat may have the largest market capitalisation of all the telecoms companies in the region with US$80.64 billion, its profits have been in decline. The company suffered a 24 per cent drop in its profit from 2009 to 2012. But it is expecting growth of up to 5 per cent in revenues this year to $9.42bn, up from last year's $8.95bn.
With its $20.11bn market capitalisation, rival du has been faring better. Its revenues for last year rose by 14.7 per cent to Dh10.16bn and its net profit after royalty payments stood at Dh1.98bn compared with Dh1.10bn in 2011, driven mostly by its mobile subscriber growth. Its shares surged 11.7 per cent as a result, the highest since November 2008.
"Du's best asset has been acquisition of new clients, which now at almost 6.5 million is a fantastic performance given the penetration of the current market. That has been the main driver of its growth and stock performance," said Petr Molik, the chief financial officer and head of research at Mena Corp.
Clarity will be the key word for Etisalat and du as both companies come to grips with the new royalty fee structure as set out by the Ministry of Finance late last year.
Once the announcement was made, billions were wiped off the market value of both operators. Etisalat's shares dropped 10 per cent to Dh8.81 and du's dropped to Dh3.45, the biggest drop last year.
"There was panic. The communication was mismanaged," said Mr Molik. "But so far the effects are either going to be neutral or positive."
The issue is not yet fully resolved and the ministry has retained its right to review the revenue-sharing fees every few years. Both operators have until March 31 to submit their final proposals to the ministry, with a decision expected within the next six months on the final royalty fee structure.
As both await the outcome, movements in share price are expected, but not on the scale of the initial announcement, according to Mr Molik.
"Mobile subscriptions are already pretty high in the GCC markets, so increasingly the focus is more on value and winning and retaining high-value customers," said Mr Reed. "The focus has also been on particular niches and data and other digital services."
Mobile broadband and data services is one of the key growth areas for all the operators. Shares of Saudi Arabia's Mobily, part owned by Etisalat, reached a six-year high on March 2 of 75.5 riyals each on a better outlook for the sector and higher data revenues.
"Mobily continues to do very well from a mixture of mobile data and being innovative in some of its plans and packages," said Mr Reed.
Real growth in terms of mobile subscribers is limited, even in the wider region. Iraq is the main market that offers potential for growth as its mobile penetration rate has yet to reach saturation. Ooredoo upped its stake to almost 64 per cent, demonstrating its faith in the country's telecoms sector.
Ooredoo is also in the running for Vivendi's 53 per cent stake in Maroc Telecom, worth some $6bn, alongside Etisalat, Saudi Telecoms Company and Korea Telecom.
A decision is expected later in the year.
"Most of these big telecoms companies in the region rely on overall growth in the economy. Some countries like the UAE have seen growth in population and that's contributed to very good results," Mr Molik said.
"I would expect the best performers, and by that I mean du, Mobily and Qtel, which are all very well managed, to continue their performance."