For a few days last month Maroc Telecom's parent company Vivendi looked like it might pull off one of the most audacious attempts yet to arrest control of one of the Middle East & Africa's largest mobile operations from the now well-entrenched players.
However, Zain, whose Celtel unit was the subject of the interest, could not agree on price with the French company and the chance of a deal - however unlikely most commentators, including your author, thought that to be - now looks to be dead and gone.
If a transaction had gone ahead it would most likely have had a significant effect on Maroc Telecom's place in the Vivendi group, with the Moroccan incumbent slotting in as part of a much larger overall portfolio.
As it is, the company remains Vivendi's sole venture in the emerging markets, and its sole vehicle for growth in Africa. In addition to its home operation and its long-standing subsidiary in Mauritania, Maroc Telecom has expanded into Burkina Faso and Gabon by purchasing the incumbents in these markets, and this year has followed those deals with the agreement to purchase a majority stake in Sotelma, the incumbent telco in Mali. The talks with Zain indicate, however, that management in France is not entirely content with this slow piece-wise expansion strategy.
The mobile business, which accounts for almost two-thirds of Maroc Telecom's MAD14.6bn strong top line, grew by 25.9% in connection terms in the year to 30th June 2008, but by just 5.9% in the most recent 12 months. Strong performances by the regional operators (+26% in Gabon, +30% in Mauritania, +74% in Burkina Faso) have failed to offset an almost complete arrest of growth in Morocco which grew by just 0.5% in the year. With 14.29m customers, the Moroccan business still accounts for 81% of the overall mobile base of 17.55m, whilst its fixed operation contributes 84% of the 1.5m strong landline total.
In revenue terms, the home business is even more dominant with 86% of the mobile turnover and 85% of the fixed - and it is convincingly the most profitable in both departments. In this light it is perhaps no wonder that Maroc Telecom's acquisition in Mali - involving around 1m customers - has failed to satisfy the appetites of the French owners. The question, if Celtel is off the menu, is where they will turn next?