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Qtel banks on Morocco ties in Maroc Telecom bid: CEO

Qtel Group CEO Nasser Marafih gestures during a news conference at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, February 26, 2013. REUTERS/Albert
Qtel Group CEO Nasser Marafih gestures during a news conference at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, February 26, 2013. REUTERS/Albert

By Leila Abboud and Kate Holton

BARCELONA (Reuters) - Qatar Telecom , seeking to complete its North Africa footprint and grow via mobile broadband, said the Gulf country's good rapport with Morocco could give it an edge over other firms bidding for partly state-owned Maroc Telecom .

Qtel Chief Executive Nasser Marafih told Reuters in an interview the kingdom of Morocco, which owns 30 percent of Maroc Telecom, would play a role in picking the winner.

"The political consideration is important, and that is something that still needs to be addressed in the discussions" which will start soon, Marafih said at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

"I think Qatar has a good relationship with Morocco, and Qtel has played an important role in the development of the countries where we are present."

Qtel, which is changing its brand name to Ooredoo - "I want" in Arabic - in all its markets, is 68 percent owned by the state.

It has submitted an initial offer for the 53 percent stake in Maroc Telecom owned by France's Vivendi , which is also being chased by Etisalat , the United Arab Emirates' (UAE) biggest telecoms operator, and KT Corp, Korea's second-biggest telco.

Qtel is being advised by J.P. Morgan on its bid for the stake, which has a market value of about $6 billion. Final bids are expected in mid-March.

Qtel is a highly profitable telecom operator based in the oil-rich Gulf state which has expanded into 16 countries from Indonesia to Algeria in the past decade.

Vivendi, the French media, entertainment and telecoms conglomerate, is looking to sell several assets to cut debt and reduce exposure to the capital-intensive telecoms business.

The buyer for Vivendi's Maroc Telecom stake would also be expected to make a mandatory offer to minority shareholders, further boosting the takeover price.

Vivendi had initially targeted a price of at least 5.5 billion euros ($7.19 billion) but analysts believe that is too high given the unit's weakness and recent growth slowdown.

Marafih declined to comment on Vivendi's asking price or Maroc's market capitalization, saying only that Qtel was doing its own valuation based on its long-term view of the business.

Qtel will not be drawn into a bidding war with Etisalat and KT, he said. "We don't worry about competition in the process because has to make sense for us. We are not afraid to walk away."

Qtel's interest in Morocco comes after it spent about $3.9 billion raising its stakes in subsidiaries in Iraq and Kuwait over the past year.

Marafih said no similar moves were being planned for its Oman subsidiary or its Algerian business, of which it owns 80 percent, although it could one day carry out initial public offering there.

Marafih said the company's strategy was to strengthen its positions in its biggest markets, while focusing on reducing operating costs.

The group is also evaluating the sale of smaller assets, he said, including its Saudi Arabia push-to-talk operator Bravo.

He ruled out exiting Palestine or the Maldives "at this stage", saying they were small but good operations that could be built. ($1 = 0.7649 euros)

(Editing by David Cowell)

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