CAIRO: Egyptian telecoms magnate Naguib Sawiris wants to get back on the acquisition trail, eyeing businesses in Europe, the Middle East and Africa after selling a chunk of assets to Russia's Vimpelcom.
Sawiris said he plans to divest non-core operations left out of the sale to Vimpelcom last April and use his company Orascom Telecom Media and Technology (OTMT) to buy established mobile phone businesses and network operating licences.
He also expects to double his subscriber numbers in his one exclusive phone market of North Korea, where he said he will lose his exclusivity deal in 2013.
"I want to dispose of assets not aligned with the mobile business... and then make it a mobile company that will go out and seek what's left of operations, including managing existing operations," he said in an interview with Reuters at Orascom's Cairo headquarters on Monday.
Sawiris built his telecoms empire by venturing into frontier markets with strong growth potential that others saw as too risky such as Algeria, North Korea and Bangladesh.
Sawiris, at 57 one of Egypt's richest men, has eased off day-to-day management of his empire after selling assets including Italian operator Wind and his most lucrative business, Algeria's Djezzy, to Vimpelcom in a deal worth $6 billion.
His investments outside telecoms include media such as the independent daily newspaper al-Masry al-Youm and a television channel providing secular programmes for young people.
Much of his time is now spent in politics - he has been one of Cairo's most outspoken business personalities on issues such as political reform and media freedoms.
Last year he co-founded the liberal Free Egyptians party which took on the powerful Muslim Brotherhood in a parliamentary election. The Brotherhood and more hardline Salafi Islamists swept the vote, taking around two thirds of the seats.
Dismissing the Brotherhood's moderate official agenda, Sawiris says the group wants to turn Egypt into an Iran-style theocracy, but says his family will not abandon the country of his birth.
Egypt remains the base for his business empire, which includes Egyptian mobile operator Mobinil, one of the biggest assets left out of the Vimpelcom deal.
True to his tradition of seeking out unconventional assets, Sawiris is studying countries like Libya, which is struggling to achieve stability after a bloody civil conflict last year.
"You have in Libya three companies that are publicly owned. You cannot sustain that situation as you have to have competition, so how can you be an owner of three networks?" he said in an interview in his opulent offices on the 26th floor of Nile Towers, the cavernous office, shopping and hotel complex he built by the river.
If the Syrian government led by Bashar al-Assad falls, he said, a new government would eventually hold tenders to sell networks owned by businessman Rami Makhlouf, Assad's cousin.
"Then you have fourth-generation licences coming, and Africa where there are still assets left over, so I believe we can rebuild this story again and make value again," said Sawiris.
He said he would stay in North Korea after a second mobile network licence comes up for offer around the end of 2012. OTMT said last week it reached 1 million subscribers in North Korea.
"I think we will reach 2 million subscribers by the start of 2013," said Sawiris.
OTMT was also looking at Europe, said Sawiris, because many big companies were selling assets in markets where they saw no possibility of further growth.
Sawiris and Austrian investor Ronny Pecik have built a stake of 20.1 percent in Telekom Austria via shares and options. Telekom Austria operates in eight countries.
"We see this as an investment of influence," he said. "That means we would like sooner or later with the Austrian government to raise the value of this asset... We accumulated a very good stake with Mr. Pecik so it's a very good opportunity."
Sawiris said he has bid $1.5 billion in an auction for France Telecom's Swiss unit, less than private equity firm Apax Partners which bid $1.6 billion.
"Why would private equity be able to go and buy Orange in Switzerland and do a better job than a mobile management company that has money?" he said, adding that Apax "need to be $100 million better. We know the business very well".
Asked whether there was a risk that OTMT could end up competing head-to-head with Vimpelcom, in which Sawiris has a stake, he said: "I have no non-compete clause in this deal (with Vimpelcom)".
Arab Finance Brokerage is among the companies that could be sold as non-core assets of OTMT, he said. Other non-mobile businesses within OTMT include banking and sea cables.