* Gulf operators Etisalat and Ooredoo battling for asset
* Stake is worth 4.46 bln euros at current market price
* Moroccan kingdom must approve Vivendi’s choice of bidder
* Deal is key to Vivendi strategic overhaul
By Leila Abboud, Sophie Sassard and Christian Plumb
PARIS/LONDON, April 24 (Reuters) - Vivendi has received two binding offers from Gulf companies for a 53 percent stake in Maroc Telecom, the first tangible sign of progress in the French media and telecom conglomerate’s efforts to remake itself.
Etisalat of the United Arab Emirates and Qatar’s state-owned Ooredoo are vying for the Moroccan telecoms company.
Vivendi is expected to choose a preferred bidder early next week, then go into exclusive negotiations, said a person with direct knowledge of the matter.
Vivendi would be content with 5 billion euros for the stake, the person said before the two offers were submitted, adding that another factor would be the legal clauses each bidder put in their offers because they could slow down closing.
A second person close to one of the bidders said on Wednesday that 5 billion euros would be a generous price for Vivendi’s stake, which has a current market value of 4.46 billion euros ($5.80 billion).
Maroc Telecom shares rose 1.4 percent to 110 dirhams in Casablanca.
Vivendi is one year into a planned overhaul aimed at lowering its exposure to capital-intensive telecoms and focusing more on media. It already failed to sell video game firm Activision Blizzard and Brazilian telecoms unit GVT last year, and will face shareholders at an annual meeting on April 30.
Morocco’s government owns 30 percent of Maroc Telecom and must approve Vivendi’s choice of buyer, adding a political dimension to the auction.
The buyer must also fund a buyout option to be offered to minority shareholders, adding to the purchase price.
Sources close to the process told Reuters earlier that the eventual winner will need to satisfy Vivendi’s price expectations, while also convince the Moroccans that it is the best custodian for one of their biggest national assets.
Both the UAE and Qatar are important trading partners with Morocco, whose economy has suffered from a dip in tourism since the Arab Spring uprisings and the euro zone crisis.
Etisalat did not disclose details of its bid but said in a statement on Wednesday that it would finance a transaction from external sources and had arranged funding from both local and international banks.
The company has lined up an $8 billion dual-tranche loan, bankers working on the deal said earlier this month.
Etisalat has been dogged in its due diligence in preparing the bid, the first person said, and adept in handling discussions with the Moroccan authorities.
Etisalat was also appealing to Morocco’s sense of prestige with a promise to make Maroc Telecom the flagship of its African operations and deploy Maroc Telecom executives throughout the continent, sources told Reuters earlier.
Etisalat’s statement said its offer is subject to “a number of conditions”, securing regulatory approvals in Morocco and other countries where Maroc Telecom operates, “as well as other approvals that are part of Etisalat’s corporate governance.”
An Etisalat spokesman said the group would likely hold an extraordinary general meeting between May 20-30.
Ooredoo’s chief strategy officer, Jeremy Sell, said its binding bid contained few legal conditions, and would go forward if the Moroccan government’s approval was secured.
“Vivendi is now in the driving seat. We tried to make it a bid they can sign now.”
Sell added that Ooredoo had also taken pains to engage with the local management of Maroc Telecom and the government.
“We spent a lot of time with the key parties to hear their concerns,” said Sell. “We would be happy to take on local partners, and work to expand Maroc Telecom overseas and in the country via more network investment.”
Sell added that Ooredoo had “substantially increased” the price it offered from its preliminary bid and, while declining to give a specific figure, he said the bid was in cash.
Maroc Telecom offers fixed-line, mobile and Internet services in the kingdom and is one of Africa’s top telecom firms, with units in Burkina Faso, Gabon, Mali and Mauritania.
The buyer will inherit a firm that has been a reliable cash machine for Vivendi but has seen slower growth in recent years, analysts say, although there is growth potential in sub-Saharan Africa, where sales and profits rose last year.
Vivendi shares closed up 2.7 percent at 17 euros a share, while the French blue-chip index rose 1.6 percent.