The Syrian Communications and Postal Regulatory Authority has finalised its draft licence for a potential third mobile telecoms operator

When it comes to the telecoms sector, Syria has been a duopoly for over 20 years. Now, however, it seems that the Syrian government is finally beginning to make way for a third mobile operator, with the national regular releasing statements confirming the draft licence for a new mobile player. 

The regulator said that the new operator must offer modern services in line with global standards, including launching with 4G technology and being prepared to launch 5G in the future.

The arrival of a new player, if it does ultimately come to pass, will have been a long time coming. 

When Syriatel and MTN Syria signed their 15-year build-operate-transfer (BOT) with the Syrian government back in 2000, both companies stressed the necessity of keeping maintaining just two national mobile operators in the market; indeed, the contracts themselves even included promises from the government not to introduce a third player for at least seven years. 

But despite this, discussions surrounding the liberalisation of the country’s telecoms sector were never far away. As early as 2005, the Ministry of Communications and Technology was already reported as drawing up plans for a tender process to find a third operator, with the government’s Syrian Telecommunications Establishment (STE) considered a likely candidate for the licence. 

Between 2005 and 2010, rumours abounded, with potential suitors for a new licence including players like Vodafone, Kuwait’s MTC, and Etisalat. It was towards the end of 2010 that the tender process finally got underway, with Saudi Telecom, Etisalat, Qatar-based QTel (now Ooredoo), France Telecom (now Orange), and Turkcell all registering bids.

However, before the process could be completed, the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011 threw the country into chaos, delaying the liberalisation process indefinitely. 

Of course, the civil war continues to this day, a fact that is sure to dissuade some potential operators from entering the market. Coupled with the ongoing global pandemic, it seems like a strange time for the government to be pressing ahead with liberalisation plans that began over a decade ago.

The challenging nature of the Syrian market is perhaps most obvious when considering the recent experience of MTN Syria itself. Back in 2020, MTN Group announced that its operations in the Middle East – including Syria, Iran, and Yemen – were no longer worth pursuing, aiming instead to withdraw and focus on Africa. TeleInvest, a minority stakeholder in the Syrian unit, was quickly lined up to purchase MTN’s 75% stake in the business.

At the time, MTN Group CEO was quoted as saying that operating in Syria was “intolerable”. 

By February 2021, however, the situation had become worse, with a court ruling that MTN Syria be placed under judicial guardianship as a result of a clash with the government over revenue. The chairman of TeleInvest was subsequently appointed to manage the company’s day-to-day operations.

MTN still hopes to complete the sale to TeleInvest for a sum estimated to be around $65 million.


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