The "geographic spread and financial attractiveness" of the offers were tantamount to "a vote of confidence from international businesses in the strength and prospects of the Saudi economy," Amr Dabbagh said in a statement on Thursday.

A consortium led by the United Arab Emirates' Etisalat on Tuesday made the highest bid to become Saudi Arabia's second mobile phone operator, offering $3.25bn.

It was followed by a consortium including South Africa's MTN, which offered $2.94bn.

Egypt's Orascom came third among six bidders, offering $2.61bn.

Lucrative market

The highest bidder would enter a lucrative market, which has more than eight million mobile users and a growth rate of about 30%, although it has to meet a number of financial requirements and be approved by the Saudi cabinet.

Egypt's Orascom is one of the
bidders for the GSM licence

An Arab industry report has predicted that revenues in Saudi Arabia's GSM market will soar to $7.9bn by 2007 on the back of the partial privatisation of state-owned giant Saudi Telecom and of increased competition.

Although Riyadh is opening up the mobile sector to competition, Saudi Telecom will retain a monopoly over land lines and internet services until 2008.

"We have consistently maintained that the business confidence stems from strong economic fundamentals and market potential, and security aberrations are unlikely to have a lasting impact on Saudi Arabia's investment climate and potential," said Dabbagh, who heads the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA).

Dabbagh made the same point last month, saying the kingdom was too important a market to be shunned by foreign entrepreneurs despite a recent spate of attacks against foreigners.

The attacks by suspected al-Qaida fighters followed a string of bombings which began in May 2003.