Yemen Mobile Company Sabafon Alleges Government Vendetta

National Yemen

Sabafon headquarter Sana'a Zubeiry St

National Yemen
Sabafon subscribers cannot phone abroad.
* Calls to and from landlines also barred.
* Ruling party denies deliberately targeting Sabafon.

Yemeni mobile operator Sabafon said last week that its facilities had come under repeated attack by state forces because of its chairman’s support for protests.  A spokesman for Sabafon, which is 27-percent owned by Bahrain Telecommunications Co (Batelco), said the company’s headquarters had been hit three times by rocket-propelled grenades this year.

He said more than 250 transmission towers and other sites — about a quarter of its facilities — had been subject to shelling, gunfire and looting, killing one employee.

Additionally, Sabafon subscribers cannot receive or make calls to Yemen landlines or phone abroad, illustrating the toll of nearly a year of strife in the impoverished Gulf nation has taken on basic services.

“The damage continues … employees were afraid to attend the headquarters and many sites were shut down, which dramatically affected operations and the company’s ability to provide services,” said the spokesman.

“These led to an exodus of subscribers to other providers. These unlawful measures are part of a punishment by the authorities on Sabafon because of the pro-revolution position of its chairman.”

An official of Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) denied Sabafon was deliberately targeted, and that whatever damages it may have suffered came in the context of hostilities instigated by gunmen allied to the Sabafon chairman and its major shareholder, Hamid al-Ahmar.

Al-Ahmar is the brother of Sadeq al-Ahmar, a leader of the powerful Hashed tribal confederation and long-time rival of the outgoing Saleh. This month, Yemen’s new unity government met for the first time and a presidential election is due in February.

Abdulhafeedh al-Nahari, Vice-Spokesman of the GPC, said fighting in the capital had damaged infrastructure.

“He (Hamid al-Ahmar) attacked government buildings in the capital, the government responded in self-defense … this created bad relations with the government,” Nahari said. “All the telecommunication companies in Yemen have suffered as a result of this crisis.”

As well as restrictions on making phone calls, Sabafon subscribers are also barred from mobile internet access.

Sabafon lost has lost “hundreds of thousands” of subscribers as a result of this disruption, the company spokesman said. It had 3.6 million customers at the end of 2010, according to Batelco’s annual report.

“The tribal and political fractures in Yemen are also seen in the country’s telecoms sector — Ahmar controls Sabafon, while the government controls the land line infrastructure and the international gateway,” said a telecoms analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“This shows Yemen really needs the rule of law and democracy, because vital sectors such as telecoms shouldn’t be left to the whims of individuals. Disruption will likely continue until the political situation is resolved,” the analyst said.

An employee at Sabafon said that the company should receive an approval from the Deputy President Abdu-Rabbo Mansour Hadi to re-connect all the services for company. However, this suggestion did not sit well with the Ministry of Telecommunication and IT.

“Telecom companies in Yemen did not pay attention to their mobile network services over the past ten months. All what we get is a bothering of excuses and apology for the worsening services due to technical problem of fuel shortage in such areas.”

“To understand some one over mobile conversation you need to keep repeating you word five times and then you need to recall him three to four times with each try consuming credit.  I have tried three networks in Yemen and I found that no one provides good service, said Salah Ahmed.