Etihad Etisalat (Mobily) reported a 16 percent rise in fourth-quarter profit on Wednesday, beating estimates as the Saudi telecoms operator's data revenue and post-paid mobile subscriber numbers rose.
The carrier, an affiliate of UAE's Etisalat, also proposed a larger-than-expected dividend of 2 riyals per share for the second half of the year.
"The main focus will be on Mobily's dividend - if this is 1.75 riyals for the second half of 2011 it will meet previous guidance from the company," said Farouk Miah, NCB Capital telecoms analyst, speaking before Mobily's announcement.
The operator made a net profit of SR1.7bn ($453m) in the fourth quarter of 2011, up from SR1.46bn in the same period a year ago.
Analysts polled by Reuters on average expected the firm to post a quarterly profit of SR1.44bn.
Mobily, which unveiled its long-term evolution (LTE) high-speed network in September, said data revenue in 2011 rose 59 percent. Data accounted for 22 percent of total revenue last year, up from 18 percent in 2010.
Mobily's margins fell to 40 percent in the fourth-quarter, down from 44 percent a year earlier, as the operator's sales of low margin smart phones and tablets increased. Mobily has pushed these devices to boost data sales.
"As smart phones become cheaper, data use will increase further as lower income customers start buying data packages," said NCB's Miah.
Mobily's contract phone subscriber base rose 50 percent last year to account for 28 percent of revenue, it said.
"Contract customers are wealthier, spend more on phone services and are also less likely to switch operators than lower income subscribers," said Miah. "Both Mobily and Zain Saudi are focusing on trying to convert their existing base to postpaid contracts.
"They are doing this by offering more attractive bundles to contract customers - the difference in pricing between prepaid and postpaid is getting bigger.
"Overall, contract customers do spend more, but the per-minute pricing is cheaper."
The operator's shares closed 1.4 percent lower on the Saudi bourse before the results were announced.
Mobily competes with former monopoly Saudi Telecom Co and Zain Saudi, an affiliate of Kuwait's Zain.