(Bloomberg) -- Saudi Telecom Co. is among suitors that have been studying a potential acquisition of the Portuguese operations of billionaire Patrick Drahi’s Altice empire, according to people with knowledge of the matter, as the state-owned Middle Eastern carrier pushes to further expand in Europe. 

Other phone companies and some buyout funds have also been evaluating the business, which operates under the MEO brand, and could submit initial bids before Christmas, one of the people said. Potential bidders could value the unit at around €7 billion ($7.5 billion) to €9.5 billion, said the people. 

Middle Eastern telecom operators flush with cash have recently started stepping up their overseas investments, especially in Europe, where valuations for telecom assets have fallen in recent years. Saudi Telecom is seeking to build a multibillion-dollar holding in Spain’s Telefonica SA and agreed in April to buy a tower portfolio from United Group for $1.3 billion. 

Drahi told investors in September he was open to selling virtually all of his assets for the right price in an effort to reduce his $60 billion debt pile. He said he would prefer to sell stakes in Altice’s European carriers to private equity investors rather than industrial or strategic partners.

Deliberations are ongoing, and there’s no certainty which potential buyers will proceed with formal offers. A representative for Altice declined to comment. A spokesperson for Saudi Telecom didn’t reply to requests for comment. 

Drahi used borrowed money to finance aggressive acquisitions for years when interest rates were low. Now that borrowing costs have surged, he’s selling off assets. Altice also is grappling with a corruption probe in Portugal that’s targeted some of Drahi’s key executives and confidants. 

--With assistance from Francois de Beaupuy, Swetha Gopinath, Matthew Martin and Thomas Seal.

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