London-based global MVNO Lebara has been awarded a license in Saudi Arabia and expects to launch services there in the second quarter of 2014, running on the network of Saudi MNO Mobily (owned by UAE-based provider Etisalat). Lebara, which also operates in Europe and Australia, says it plans to explore further growth opportunities within the Gulf market, with other prospective partners.
The Middle East has, up until now, been resistant to MVNOs, because of the potential challenge they pose to established operators—many of which are government owned—but there are signs of change. Oman has already opened up to MVNOs, and this past June, Saudi Arabia issued licenses to three entities, Virgin Mobile Middle East and Africa, Dubai-based Axiom Telecom, and Lebara. We expect competition to heat up in the Saudi mobile market during 2014.