Full Repairs to Damaged Red Sea Internet Cables Delayed by Yemen Political Splits

(Bloomberg) -- Full repairs to three submarine internet cables damaged in the Red Sea in February are being held up by disputes over who controls access to infrastructure in Yemeni waters.

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The Yemeni government has granted permits for the repair of two out of three cables, but refused the third because of a dispute with one of the cable’s consortium members.

Repairs to the Seacom and EIG cables have been approved, but the consortium that runs AAE-1, which includes telecommunications company TeleYemen, was not granted a permit by Yemen’s internationally recognized government, according to documents seen by Bloomberg.

Three out of more than a dozen cables that run through the Red Sea, a critical route for connecting Europe’s internet infrastructure to Asia’s, were knocked offline by the Houthi-sunk Rubymar vessel in late February. Although the telecommunications data that passes along the damaged cables was re-routed, the incident highlighted the vulnerability of critical subsea infrastructure and the challenges of making repairs in a conflict zone.

The dispute over the third cable derives from the split political control of TeleYemen, the country’s sole telecommunications provider, a reflection of the country’s broader geopolitical divisions. The company has two branches, one in Aden under control of the internationally recognized Yemeni government, and the other in Sanaa under the control of the Houthi militia group. The Yemeni government refused to cooperate with the Houthi-linked part of TeleYemen associated with the AAE-1 cable consortium and sought to appoint a representative from the Aden branch, according to the documents. But the consortium didn’t approve the alternative representative and Yemen’s government declined to grant a permit, according to the documents.

Read More: Houthi-Sunk Ship’s Anchor Likely Severed Sea Internet Cables

E-Marine, a subsidiary of Abu Dhabi-based Emirates Telecommunications Group Co. PJSC, is contracted to carry out the repairs.

The Aden branch of TeleYemen, affiliated with the Yemeni government, wrote a letter to Yemen’s Telecommunications Ministry demanding that E-Marine provide a £10 million ($12.5 million) bank guarantee to ensure it would not carry out any repairs on the AAE-1 cable when the company was fixing the other two cables until the dispute was resolved. The ministry initially approved the condition, according to the documents, but Yemen’s cabinet decided it wasn’t necessary, a senior government official told Bloomberg.

E-Marine did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Houthi telecommunications ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

It’s unclear if the Houthis, an Iran-backed militia group which controls much of Yemen’s Red Sea coastline, including the key port of Hodeida, will let E-Marine fix the two cables. The group, which has been attacking ships in the area with drones and missiles for months, has previously said only it can grant permission for the repairs.

The repair ships will take about a week to reach the cables and then approximately two days to fix each one, according to Seacom Ltd.’s Prenesh Padayachee. The cables will be lifted to the surface and fresh cable will be spliced in to replace the damaged sections.

The repair crew will also assess the Rubymar, the Houthi-sunk ship whose anchor most likely severed the cables in February. Seacom estimates that the ship is currently about 1 kilometer away from its cable, Padayachee said, and seems to be stable.

“But we don’t want to do a repair and then have this vessel falling into the new cables,” he said. “In all likelihood it will have to be moved.”

The three damaged cables carry about 25% of traffic in the region, according to estimates from Hong Kong-based internet provider HGC Global Communications, which uses the cables.

--With assistance from Paul Wallace.

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