By Saeed Azhar and Kate Holton
DUBAI/LONDON (Reuters) -United Arab Emirates-based telecoms company e& has bought a 9.8% stake in Vodafone for $4.4 billion, days after saying it was looking to expand into new markets and related areas such as financial technology.
E&, formerly known as Emirates Telecommunications Group, said it had made the investment to gain "significant exposure to a world leader in connectivity and digital services", adding it had no intention of making an offer for the whole of Vodafone.
Vodafone, like other mobile operators, has been struggling in its more mature markets, where competition and regulation have pushed prices lower.
Net debt at the group has reached 44.3 billion euros ($46.1 billion) and Chief Executive Nick Read is under pressure to simplify its portfolio and improve returns after a more than 20% slide in its share price since he took over in 2018.
Vodafone said it looked forward to building a long-term relationship with e&. "We continue to make good progress with our long-term strategic plans and will provide an update in our FY22 results announcement on 17 May," it said in a statement.
E& said it is fully supportive of the company's current business strategy and its board and existing management team.
"We see this investment as a good opportunity for e& and its shareholders as it will allow us to enhance and develop our international portfolio, in line with our strategic ambition," said CEO Hatem Dowidar.
The UAE firm recently separated its business into e& life, focused on consumer services, e& enterprise, providing digital services to government and business, and telecoms arm Etisalat, which its CEO said is the world's seventh-largest by market capitalisation.
"We are positive on the investment for e& - it enables an improved capital structure, supports EPS (earnings per share) growth, (and) arrives at attractive valuation multiples," said Ziad Itani, executive director equity research at Arqaam Capital.
While the investment is sizable, it is less than 6% of the market capitalisation of e&, which also has a healthy balance sheet with net debt/EBITDA at 0.41 times, he said.
($1 = 0.9605 euros)
(Reporting by Shivani Tanna in Bengalaru, Saeed Azhar in Dubai, and Kate Holton and Michael Holden in London; Editing by Jan Harvey and Dvid Holmes)