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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 15 October 2018

Reinstating internet will bring a semblance of normality to Yemen

Telecommunications are integral to modern life – and therefore to modern warfare, as the Houthis have shown

A 4G mobile network, supported by the UAE will launch in Aden later this month. Ali Mahmoud / The National
A 4G mobile network, supported by the UAE will launch in Aden later this month. Ali Mahmoud / The National

In April 2007, the Estonian internet absorbed a volley of cyber attacks, bringing the online services of banks, media outlets, email providers and government departments to their knees. It followed a diplomatic spat between the Estonian and Russian governments over the location of a Soviet-era statue and was over in a couple of weeks.

But it retains a place in internet folklore as one of the first major acts of international cyber warfare.

What the episode underscored, even in 2007, was the internet’s unmatched significance in modern life. For businesses, banks and governments today, telecommunications are not a luxury but a necessity.

It was with that knowledge that the Houthis tightened their grip on Yemeni internet after seizing Sanaa in 2015, snatching control of the two main mobile networks, Yemen Mobile and MTN, and taxing them heavily. In doing so they thwarted businesses and cut many ordinary Yemenis off from the outside world.

Last week, the Houthis went a step further, damaging major fibre optic cables and disrupting internet service to almost 80 per cent of the country. It is an ugly tactic of modern warfare – one that underlines the Iran-backed militia’s disdain for the Yemeni people.

Indeed, it was predictable: the regime in Tehran has responded to periodic mass protest by blocking telecommunications channels.

But in Yemen, at least, there is a change in the direction of travel. Last week, the country’s telecommunications minister, Lutfi Bashreef, announced the launch of a new UAE-backed network, Aden Net, this month, which will wrestle control of the internet from Houthi rebels and restore coverage to ordinary Yemenis.

It is an important and welcome step – one that will return some semblance of normality to a population under siege. It will boost an economy wrecked by years of war and assist international aid organisations in their humanitarian projects.

When Russian bots flooded Estonia’s internet over a decade ago, they opened a new chapter in the history of warfare. Today, cyberwarfare is ubiquitous. And the restoration of telecommunications in Aden, thanks to Yemen’s internationally-recognised government and the UAE, represents a significant victory against a Houthi faction determined to tear the country apart.