PARIS Vivendi (VIV.PA) has received four expressions of interest in its 53-percent stake in Maroc Telecom (IAM.CS) from which it hopes to garner at least 5.5 billion euros ($7.13 billion), two people familiar with the matter said on Wednesday.
Regional rivals Qatar Telecom QTEL.QA, Etisalat 7020.SE and Saudi Telecom 7010.SE, as well as South Africa's MTN (MTNJ.J) have spoken to Vivendi's bankers about acquiring the stake in Morocco's biggest operator, the people said.
There is no official deadline set for offers, but Vivendi hopes to sign a deal before the end of the first quarter of 2013, one of the people said.
Maroc Telecom is Vivendi's second largest contributor to earnings but its growth has slowed in recent years under tough competition in its domestic market.
Vivendi is seeking to sell assets to cut debt and revive its flagging share price, which is near 10-year lows.
The kingdom of Morocco, which owns a 30 percent stake, would need to approve any sale.
Led by Chairman Jean-Rene Fourtou, Vivendi has been reviewing its strategy, and has also put its Brazilian telecom operator GVT on the block.
Earlier it tried to sell video games unit Activision Blizzard (ATVI.O) but failed to attract bids at the price it wanted.
Vivendi shares, which had been trading down 0.3 percent, closed up 2.2 percent after the Reuters report.
Maroc Telecom, in which Vivendi first bought a stake in 2001, offers fixed-line, mobile and internet services. It is one of Africa's main telecom operators with units in Burkina Faso, Gabon, Mali and Mauritania.
Qatar Telecom is seen as the best-placed potential bidder because they have the funds to back the acquisition and internal agreement on the strategic rationale, said one of the sources.
The group, which has expanded in 16 countries from Indonesia to Algeria over the past decade, is already in talks with two banks on a mandate to bid, the person said.
Qatar Telecom declined to comment.
Etisalat Chief Executive Ahmad Julfar told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday that the global economic crisis would create opportunities for the Gulf operator to expand in the next 18 months.
Asked whether Etisalat was mulling a bid for Vivendi's Maroc Telecom, he said: "We are not part of that yet".
Saudi Telecom is interested in expanding in Morocco having earlier looked at buying second-biggest player Meditel. But it may not be able to move on a bid soon because of an ongoing strategy review after a management reshuffle.
Saudi Telecom was not immediately available for comment.
MTN is a surprise name in the race because observers had seen the South African group as unlikely to be interested for political reasons linked to Morocco's occupation of Western Sahara.
"We thought it wouldn't be possible for them but they are showing great interest and they promise that they will handle the political issues," the person said.
MTN declined to comment specifically on its interest in Maroc Telecom with its spokesman Rich Mkhondo saying: "MTN is always looking for value-enhancing opportunities but we never comment on speculation about those opportunities until the right time."
Any bidder for Vivendi's stake would be required under local stock market rules to make an offer to buy-out minority shareholders.
But the state is not interested in selling all of its 30 percent stake, the two people said.
The state could, however, sell a small portion of its stake so as to keep roughly 10 percent of Maroc Telecom traded on the Casablanca exchange, one of the people said.
The company is the largest company on the Moroccan exchange by market capitalization.
($1 = 0.7714 euros)
(Reporting by Leila Abboud, Sophie Sassard, Gwenaelle Barzic; Additional reporting by Tiisetso Motsoeneng in Johannesburg; editing by Jason Neely and Jane Merriman)