Some of the most innovative operators from the Middle East & Gulf region this week called for regulators to either maintain or adopt a “light touch” approach to telecoms regulation in the fast growing market.

Speaking at this week’s panel discussion, Examining the MEG Regional Telecoms Pricing Environment and Determining the Right Balance between Regulation and Market Forces, at GSM>3G Middle East and Gulf in Dubai, a handful of the region’s carriers warned against the adoption of Western regulatory models, which are largely viewed as cumbersome.

The call for action came as a live poll conducted among the delegates and attendees at the event revealed a lack of confidence over whether regulators have been successful in promoting competition in local markets. The vast majority, 59 per cent, said “no”, with only 37 per cent saying “yes”.

What is clear is that pent up demand for mobile communications is very high across the region and there is a willingness to spend, but in order to get subscribers to spend, carriers need to deliver premium service and attractive offerings, which the panellists argued is only achievable under a light touch regulatory framework.

Samir Satchu, general council and head of government affairs for Roshan in Afghanistan, highlighted the difficulties of driving growth in a market known for its tough terrain and a lack of infrastructure for utilities as simple as electricity. “There needs to be an incentive for carriers to invest in the rural areas and this process needs to be determined by the market,” he said.

“Telecoms is the only game in town in terms of private sector investment in Afghanistan and growth in the market has been driven by a regulatory framework that boosts competition and creates a level playing field,” Satchu said.

Ross Cormack, CEO of Nawras in Oman, supported the idea that a less intrusive regulatory model is the way forward for the Middle East. “The model that regulators in Europe and the US follow is not about the free market, it’s more about piling regulation on regulation. When I worked at AirTouch, the biggest team in the company was the lawyers, because they had to deal with the regulatory bodies on a day to day basis,” he said. “In the Middle East, the regulators are largely getting it right with a light touch approach.”

But the operators’ favoured regulatory model does not necessarily translate across the whole region. Cormack said that although there have been some meetings between the national regulators of the region, “the Arab regulators seem to be looking at the European model, which is going in the wrong direction, but the Gulf regulators seem to be looking at the light touch model,” he said.

Among the panellists the general consensus was that, if left alone, the market will sort itself out. Harri Koponen, general manager and CEO of Wataniya Telecom in Kuwait, warned regulators, “not to copy the bad system that has been adopted by Europe and is increasingly being by the US.”