Major mobile operator in Yemen leaves Houthi-controlled Sanaa

Special Major mobile operator in Yemen leaves Houthi-controlled Sanaa
Sabafon facility in Sanaa. (Supplied)
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Updated 23 September 2020

Major mobile operator in Yemen leaves Houthi-controlled Sanaa

Major mobile operator in Yemen leaves Houthi-controlled Sanaa
  • Sabafon, Yemen’s oldest and largest mobile operator, has almost four million subscribers

AL-MUKALLA: A major Yemeni mobile operator is relocating its main offices and operations from Houthi-held Sanaa to Aden, citing harassment and blackmail by the rebels.

Sabafon, Yemen’s oldest and largest mobile operator, has almost four million subscribers. It said it was moving its headquarters and servers to the port city of Aden, which is controlled by the internationally recognized government.

“The company has recently faced many difficulties and obstacles as a result of the Houthi militia seizure of the company’s headquarters in Sanaa,” the company said.

The Iran-backed Houthis had seized control of Sabafon’s headquarters, dismissed its manager, replaced him with an allied military officer and looted the company’s revenues, it added.

The government has long sought to convince Yemeni companies and banks to move their headquarters and main operations from Houthi-controlled territories, including Sanaa, to liberated areas in order to deprive the rebels of revenue. 

Government officials believe the Houthis are using the revenue from banks, telecom firms and Hodeidah seaport to finance their military activities. 

President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi ordered the relocation of the central bank’s headquarters to Aden in 2016 to end the rebels’ plundering of bank reserves.

Sabafon said the president, his government and the Arab coalition had blessed the move and urged the remaining mobile operators to follow suit. 

Abdullah Al-Awadhi, a Sabafon spokesman, said that the company and other telecom firms in Sanaa had been subjected to Houthi extortion and harassment. “The companies in areas controlled by the Houthis would have to either shutter to move (to Aden),” he told Arab News.

When the Houthis heard about the company’s intention to leave Sanaa, they stepped up their attacks on the company’s facilities and harassed the workers. 

“We are paying a price for our move," Al-Awadhi said, adding that the Houthis retaliated by blocking Sanaa-based mobile companies from calling Sabafon subscribers and cutting off internet services. 

On Wednesday Sabafon subscribers complained that they could not receive or make calls to other companies. “We demand the ministry (of telecommunication) pressure the other operators to reconnect with us and to connect us with the international internet provider,” Al-Awadhi said.

Yemeni army commanders and military experts believe that the Houthis’ monopoly on telecom services have given them leverage on the battlefield. 

The Houthis have been accused of tapping the phones of their enemies, even inside government-controlled areas. The Houthis sometimes cut off mobile, landline and internet services before invading new areas, Yemeni officers said.

Abdul Basit Al-Baher, a Yemeni army spokesman in Taiz, said that the relocation of mobile companies to Aden would remove an important financial source for the Houthis as well as prevent them from spying on government forces. 

“Liberating the telecommunication system from the Houthis would mean securing the most important factors for victory which (are) communications, control and confidentiality of military information,” Al-Baher told Arab News, adding that the Houthis usually identified the location of government officers and military gatherings after monitoring their mobiles and calls.