More Questions Than Answers on $14 Billion Zain Deal

SINGAPORE/KUWAIT (Reuters) – Even after a news conference gave out names of the buyers planning to purchase a 46 percent stake in Kuwaiti telecom Zain (ZAIN.KW), questions still surround the $13.7 billion deal.

Any large acquisition comes with uncertainties, but rarely does a deal this size fail to immediately identify key questions such as funding sources and the identity of certain buyers.

Another key question centres around how Zain, the Arab world’s third biggest telecoms firm, and the buyers plan to coordinate, as the deal was orchestrated by a shareholder and not the company.

Kuwaiti family conglomerate Kharafi Group led the sale of its stake — estimated at 20 percent — along with a group of smaller shareholders to an Indian, Malaysian group. The company’s largest shareholder is the Kuwait Investment Authority (KIA), which owns nearly 25 percent in Zain.

The consortium is made up of India’s little-known Vavasi Group, state-owned telecom firm Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd [BSNL.UL], state-run Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd (MTNL.BO), and Malaysian billionaire Syed Mokhtar al-Bukhary, according to the Kharafi Group.

But it’s unclear whether or not the two state-backed Indian companies are fully on board with the deal.

“We have held some initial discussions with one of the two names you mentioned,” Farid Arifuddin, a managing director a Vavasi, told Reuters on Wednesday.

Several loan industry sources at big banks say they have yet to be tapped by any member of the consortium. Typically with a multi-billion dollar deal, many banks are contacted before any deal to ensure funding and to take the cash burden from buyers. A nearly $14 billion deal would rarely be paid out in cash.

At Kharafi’s news conference in Kuwait on Tuesday, the group did not outline how the buyers intend to pay for the stake.

“The idea that this group is going to just come up with $13.7 billion seems a little far fetched right now,” said a telecom banker not involved in the deal but familiar with Zain. “This just doesn’t look like anything close to real yet.”

Also, telecom industry sources say they are still trying to sort out who exactly the Vavasi Group is. According to its website, the New Delhi-based group has interests in telecoms, real estate, renewable energy, steel and cement.

The privately owned conglomerate does not give details about its shareholders nor its ownership structure.

As for the Malaysian billionaire involved in Zain, he may have deep pockets but has kept a low profile. Syed Mokhtar began his career as a rice and cattle trader in ex-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad’s home state of Kedah.

He quit formal schooling early to help his father’s cattle trading, branching later into beef, rice and transport. The 50-something tycoon was regarded as close to Mahathir.

Zain, Bharat Sanchar Nigam, Mahanagar Telephone Nigam were not immediately available for comment on Wednesday, while Syed Mokhtar could not be reached for comment.


Another unanswered question is what the buyers plan to do once they have acquired the stake.

There was fevered speculation about potential buyers in the weeks before Sunday’s confirmation a shareholder was looking to sell, sending Zain shares soaring.

Zain, backed by its CEO, previously tried to sell its African assets, excluding Morocco and Sudan, with French telecoms and media conglomerate Vivendi (VIV.PA) among the top contenders. But talks with Vivendi died this summer.

In July, BSNL’s chairman said the company was looking to expand into Africa by acquiring new licences or stakes in firms, even as it awaits government approval to revive a planned IPO.

Sources close to the matter say Zain’s 46 stake sale was a Kharafi-led move, that goes against what the CEO was trying to do. How the two plan to reconcile remains unclear.

By Michael Flaherty and Eman Goma
(Additional reporting by Liau Y-Sing in KUALA LUMPUR, Devidutta Tripathy in NEW DELHI, John Irish in KUWAIT and Stephen Aldred in HONG KONG)