Mobile ownership

Today, more or less the entire Yemeni population of 28.25 million has, at least, one smartphone per capita, and 3G is the most common network used. The majority of people prefer to buy smartphones from companies like Samsung or Huawei, but products made by Apple are considered a status symbol. After 2015, with the beginning of the war, shops in Yemen started to sell second-hand iPhones at very low, convenient prices. Most are second-hand phones from the US market, lost by their first owners or stolen. This explains episodes like the one reported by The Atlantic, about the original owners of iPhones lost in USA and ended up in Yemen, who had access to the life of some families in Sana’a because of the pictures appearing when connecting to their iCloud account.

As a consequence, since 2017 the app Yemen Phone is active and available on Google Play. It is the database of Yemeni phones, with the names of all owners. Downloading it to your phone, it is possible to access Yemeni telephone directories and directory services for telecommunications companies in Yemen, searching profiles with the possibility of blocking unwanted ones.

Although there are no specific studies on geographic and social stratification, there appear to be no significant barriers to mobile ownership in Yemen and even illiterate people have one and use some of the most popular apps, like Messenger, Whatsapp or Imo, mainly due to the recent option of vocal messages and video calls. It’s common to find people who have Facebook profiles and share only pictures, even if they can’t read or write.

Video content is the most distributed on the networks: from religious prayers to songs for children, movies, online pranks and videos of the most popular Arab YouTubers. Many of the new Yemeni mobile users do not have basic literacy education, which serves to explain why videos are the more popular form of content searched and visualized. War content and propaganda also has a good viewership, particularly on social media platforms, on both sides of the conflict.

Even if the government is still in charge of mobile networks coverage, militias are very careful about the contents of communication shared by users. At Houthi checkpoints, all travellers are requested to turn on their phones, and to show the installed apps, the list of contacts and the content, in particular pictures.

Censorship is one of the main trends in the mobile network ecosystem, and is applied above all to war-related content. In fact, content conveyed by the Houthi rebels of the North, in particular videos showing Coalition bombings on civilians or rebel actions against ships or government military vehicles, are commonly removed from online information channels after a few hours, yet they often remain available through less controlled platforms and search engines. As it often happens in times of war, all communication tends to be monitored. It has been proven that the Coalition has put in place a very sophisticated system of bots on Twitter and other social networks to follow and monitor key figures, politicians, journalists and Yemeni or foreign influencers still present on the ground, with the aim of restricting the sharing of content that can provide some information on the progress of the war campaign or on the violations of human rights in war.

A similar intelligence work is put in place by Houthi rebels who often check the content shared by users on online platforms, sought in search engines or saved in their devices. Their mode of censorship is however primarily physical, “limited” to the body search of the suspected, investigating and seizing their phones, looking for evidence and information on their political militancy.