The civil war in Yemen has been ongoing for over four years now. Gradually, facts about the conflict, and the grave humanitarian crisis raging as a result, have been inundating mainstream and social media outlets. But while the majority of headlines revolve around Saudi-led airstrikes and the American involvement in the Yemeni civil war, little attention is attributed to one of the conflict’s most crucial fronts: control of the country’s internet infrastructure by the two main rivaling factions, the Houthi rebels (supported by Iran) and the Hadi government (backed up by Saudi Arabia).
Since assuming control of the capital, Sana’a, in 2015, the Houthis took over the main national internet provider, YemenNet, and over the .ye domain space. Since then, the rebel government has seized control over all other telecom providers in the capital’s region, including TeleYement and MTN Yemen. The internationally recognised Hadi government, now based in the port city of Aden, then resorted to establishing its own internet domain, called AdenNet.
Naturally, both governments could not establish their internet presence on their own, and their rivalry over the virtual space reflects the interests of larger, external forces. The Houthi controlled YemenNet network operates through partnerships in the Asia Africa Europe submarine cable. AdenNet, on the other hand, operates through overland fibre-optic cables provided by Saudi Telecom, and relies on UAE funding for its establishment. It appears that both the local governments in Yemen and the world powers backing them comprehend the importance of controlling the cyberspace, and in turn, pour extensive resources into the fight over Yemen’s internet.
Already, the ramifications of the Yemeni Internet War are evident. In the capital, Houthis have blocked access to social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp. Furthermore, self-imposed network shutdowns of YemenNet have severely stunted citizens’ access to the internet, and news outlets reporting on the movements and operations of the Houthi army have been censored. The Houthi domination of the capital’s cyberspace therefore doesn’t only restrict the internet access of Yemenis, but also limits the ability of the international community to gain insight into the situation in the country (which is often reported by ordinary citizens).
By seizing control over the internet, both the Hadi and Houthi governments are able to curate the representation of reality according to their interest.
It is interesting to note, however, that since the beginning of the civil war, despite the growing humanitarian crisis, internet activity in Yemen has risen by more than 24 percent, according to data compiled by the CIA World Factbook. Many Yemeni citizens have also been employing VPNs in order to hack and remove the internet blockage imposed by the Houthi government; the majority of attempts, alas, prove to be unsuccessful.
It is true that restricted internet access does not inflict horrors upon the Yemeni people, 18 million of which are currently in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. Yet, the eagerness of both local and international governments to control it and Yemenis’ relentless attempts to access it indicate that the internet constitutes a crucial source of autonomy and agency. In addition to leaving Yemeni citizens in a state of chaos and isolation, severing internet access in the county also restricts the ability of people around the world to stay informed and engaged with the details and developments of the conflict, and therefore renders them less eager and equipped to place pressure on their governments to intervene.
The conflict in Yemen serves as yet another reminder that in the age of technology every war has a virtual front. And it’s a damn crucial one.