Ooredoo Asia GC: Myanmar calling

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.

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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.”

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A $15bn investment

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.”

CV

Scott Weenink, Ooredoo Asia

Position: Asia general counsel

Reporting to: Group chief corporate affairs officer Michael Hancock

Employees: 15,000

Global revenue: $10bn

Total legal capacity (group level): 11

Main external law firms (Asia): Bahar & Partners, Herbert Smith Freehills, Milbank Tweed Hadley & McCloy, Norton Rose Fulbright, Rajah & Tann, Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom

Chen Lijie
General counsel, China Mobile 

We started building up our in-house legal team and legal risk management system in 2005. The system now encompasses the group’s HQ in Beijing and 32 subsidiaries in the country. There are more than 400 in-house counsel across the group, compared with 100 in 2005.

In the legal risks mapping process we have identified and categorised hundreds of legal risks and listed the actions that may result in these risks. With the help of external advisers, we have designed quantitative risk assessment tools and a matrix to define various levels of risk. We have also worked out more than 100 measures to prevent and reduce the possibility of risk. Some 70 per cent of these are in relation to policies or review and approval processes. 

We have also drafted more than 200 standardised contracts and a large number of risk-control manuals for all business units.

It is written into the group’s constitution that all key contracts and decisions must be reviewed and approved by the legal team. Since 2005 the team has provided thousands of legal opinions on a wide range of business activities, corporate governance and compliance issues. Its role has shifted from problem-solving to the prevention of problems.

As the telecoms sector is increasingly regulated and consumers are more aware of using legal action to protect their rights, the legal and regulatory environment is becoming more challenging. 

With China Mobile providing a growing range of services and expanding overseas, it is critical to have a strong legal function.

Dominic Gyngell
VP & regional counsel, AMEA, BT

BT is expanding rapidly in Asia. This growth is coming from Western multinationals expanding in emerging markets as well as the increasingly global activities of Asian-based companies such as Etihad Airways and CLSA.

This growth has occurred despite our business operating in what are often complex and restrictive regulatory environments. While there are positive signs of liberalisation in a number of countries in the region – for example the new Shanghai special economic zone, the move to unified licensing in India and the development of a licensing regime in Myanmar – international carriers are still subject to significant barriers to entry. 

In addition, the compliance burden has increased in the region as industry regulators have become more active and data privacy and anti-corruption legislation is rolled out.

Helping the business to meet its strategic goals in these complex jurisdictions is the key challenge for our legal team. To this end we have built up a strong in-house team of commercial, compliance and regulatory specialists in all of our key markets. We advise the business on expansion and licence acquisition opportunities, manage an increasingly sophisticated array of compliance and governance programmes and support a huge number of complex contracts across the region. 

Our regional team is supported by a trusted network of external advisers as well as specialists from across the wider BT legal and compliance team.