Legal : In-house interview with Ooredoo Asia General Counsel

Helping the country open up to the world is an exciting opportunity, says Singapore-based Scott Weenink, Asia GC for telecoms provider Ooredoo

Myanmar has seen tremendous change in a short period of time and one manifestation of this is the growing number of foreign business people and travellers visiting the country.

Myanmar’s former capital and largest city Yangon is certainly among the most visited places by New Zealander Scott Weenink, a legacy Norton Rose alumnus and Asia general counsel of Ooredoo. Although based in Singapore, he has spent a lot of time in Myanmar in the past two years.

Ooredoo, which means ‘I want’ in Arabic, is a brand introduced in February by Qatar Telecom to replace Qtel. It is the exclusive telecoms provider in Qatar and has a growing presence in South East Asia.

The group holds shares in Singapore’s StarHub and Indonesia’s Indosat, and owns the 4G broadband internet services provider Wi-Tribe in the Philippines.

This summer it embarked on its most significant greenfield project yet in Asia. At the end of June it won one of the two fiercely contested telecoms licences in Myanmar, making it and Norway’s Telenor the first two international mobile operators to launch services in a vastly undertapped market.

Joint effort

Ooredoo’s legal advice and preparation for the bid was completed mostly by the company’s in-house team, led jointly by Weenink in Asia and an executive team from the group’s headquarters in Doha.

“Winning the bid is a result of two years’ hard work,” says Weenink, who relocated from Doha to Singapore in 2009. “We spent two years getting ready for the bid, based out of Singapore but travelling to Myanmar frequently.”

Following the win, Weenink has been given additional responsibility as Ooredoo Myanmar chief corporate affairs officer, while continuing as Asia general counsel. For the next few months he will spend five days a week in Myanmar.

Working in Myanmar presents many challenges for foreigners and among these is the lack of mobile coverage and internet access. Even basic tasks such as checking email and making overseas phonecalls can prove difficult.

According to recent statistics, 5.4 million of the country’s 60 million population have mobile phones – a penetration rate of just 9 per cent. As mobile phone services are so scarce the costs are prohibitively expensive for most locals. A SIM card costs about $160 (£100)– much more than the average monthly income.

“It’s a challenge to do business there at present,” Weenink admits. “Most of the time you have to rely on the Wi-Fi of the hotel to access emails and sometimes it can take a day to download a file, but we can change that.”

The 15-year 3G licence will allow Ooredoo to roll out national mobile networks and provide affordable mobile services, including money transfer and data services. The total investment in Myanmar by Ooredoo is projected to be $15bn (£9.4bn).

Logistical inconveniences aside, the real challenge for Weenink and Ooredoo’s legal team lies with the country’s still-developing legal and regulatory regime.

“Providing legal advice in Asia’s emerging markets is challenging,” says Weenink. “The rules in Myanmar are in development – it’s a dynamic environment.”

He says that at the time of the licence tender, Myanmar was still finalising its telecoms law, which was only enacted in October.

“Also, government bodies are not used to dealing with corporate and commercial legal issues as the country had been closed to foreign investment for 50 years,” Weenink adds. “It’s new to everyone. The pace of change will pick up once the new system has bedded in.”

Setting a business plan, forming a company and doing business is not as straightforward as in more developed regions. Weenink’s advice on ensuring best practice in this situation is to use common sense.

“As long as the legal team is involved in projects and other matters early, we can push the business forward while ensuring we are adhering to relevant laws,” says Weenink. “Most of the advice we provide is just common sense.”

Ooredoo’s experience in emerging markets, combined with a capable in-house team, has helped the company take a positive first step in Myanmar. But for rolling out the massive network across the country, the company has selected two external firms to provide additional advice and legal support.

Through a procurement process Ooredoo has appointed Norton Rose Fulbright and Australian regulatory boutique Webb Henderson to safeguard the project.

“Norton Rose is on the group global panel,” says Weenink. “Webb Henderson has also worked across the group in the past five years. Both are strong in telecoms. One reason we chose them is that they have capable lawyers who can second to us for six months, dedicating full-time to our project. Having two external counsel on the project also helps keep competitive attention on fees.”

At group level, Ooredoo has a formal global panel. Doha HQ runs a review every 18 months. But for Asia, mandates depend on projects and needs and are always made through competitive procurement.

“We’re at the start of an incredible journey,” says Weenink. “Myanmar is one of the last real greenfield opportunities. We’re all excited we’ve been given the chance to help the country progress.”

Many lawyers and clients who have spent time in Myanmar recently would agree with Weenink that the so-called ‘Golden Land’ offers an unrivalled growth opportunity, even though working there is still problematic.

Indeed, it is best described in the words of Rudyard Kipling: “It is unlike any land you will ever know.”

Source: THE LAWYER England

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