x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Telecoms suspension puts Bahrain economy 'at risk'

The boss of Bahrain's suspended 2Connect says the nation's economy will be affacted if the telecoms regulator doesn't reverse the decision.

Fahad al Shirawi says there is no legal basis for TRA to revoke a licence unless a company is about to go bankrupt.
Fahad al Shirawi says there is no legal basis for TRA to revoke a licence unless a company is about to go bankrupt.

MANAMA // Bahrain's economy risks losing business from top international companies if a decision by the telecommunications regulator to suspend services by the operator 2Connect is enacted, its chief executive said yesterday.

Many of 2Connect's clients, including Citibank, BNP Paribas, Icap, Bloomberg News and the US government, have expressed anger at the decision by Bahrain's Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) to revoke the operator's licence, said Fahad al Shirawi, the chief executive and founder of 2Connect.

"My clients are not happy and they won't wait three weeks for me to go through the courts," Mr al Shirawi said. "There's no time."

2Connect has been entangled in a legal battle with the TRA since the regulator made the decision to suspend 2Connect's services on March 21 because of "unspecified security concerns".

Ibrahim Sharif, the head of the opposition party Wa'ad and a shareholder in 2Connect, was among several anti-government activists who were arrested last week amid protests in Manama.

Bahrain's commercial registry still lists Mr Sharif as a shareholder and director of 2Connect, said Ahmed Aldoseri, TRA's director of information and communications technologies, who has spearheaded the action against 2Connect.

The regulator has since said it would extend the deadline for 2Connect to cease its services by a month to give the company's clients more time to "smoothly transition their services to another operator of choice".

Mr al Shirawi was yesterday in talks with his lawyers, shareholders and government officials in an attempt to appeal against the decision that he said was illegal.

"There is no legal basis for TRA to revoke a licence unless a company is about to go bankrupt or if the company does not comply with a formal order by the regulator," Mr al Shirwai said, adding that neither applied in this case.

He said he was working around the clock to resolve matters. "If this network is shut down a quarter of the country's economy will be gone," he said, in reference to Bahrain's financial sector, which accounts for about 25 per cent of GDP.

The combined total assets of the Bahraini banking sector alone are just over US$222 billion (Dh815.36bn), according to the latest figures from the central bank.

Mr Aldoseri said the "business continuity of customers" was the regulator's priority, which was why the licence revocation was suspended. "We're working very hard on this and I've spoken with these customers on an almost exclusive basis to work things out," he said.

Mohammed Mahmood, the technical and operations director at the regulator, also said he had met a number of banks and financial companies to help them to find an alternative provider.

"I have spoken to organisations [such as] BNP Paribas, Citibank, and other international organisations and Ahmed Aldoseri has spoken to the others," Mr Mahmood said.

Banks say they choose 2Connect, founded in 2004, for its advanced internet and web services.

While Mr al Shirawi was working late into the night to put pressure on the regulator to retract its decision, he has also had discussions with three other providers that have agreed to take on 2Connect's clients and assets until the matter is resolved.

"I'm going to have to give the keys to someone else and write off 20 per cent of the revenue," he said.

Profits at 2Connect are in the millions of dinars, Mr al Shirawi said. He owns 25 per cent of the company, with the remainder mostly owned by Saudi Arabian shareholders.

Mr Aldoseri said the regulator did not have a personal vendetta against 2Connect and was "not hesitant to take action even against Bahrain Telecommunications Company (Batelco)", the kingdom's telecoms giant.

Batelco was fined more than 5 million Bahraini dinars (Dh48.7m) in 2009 for failing to allow rival operators to connect directly to international data lines.