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Investigation by Ahmad Awadah and Mohammad Al-Husni

Jamil Mohammad (a pseudonym), a 26 year old Yemeni young man lost his job at a tailor’s shop because of the ban imposed due to the Coronavirus pandemic. A year and a half after leaving work in the Saudi city of Riyadh, he decided to return to his work there when the Covid-19 pandemic began to recede.

Everything was going as he had planned except for the trouble of obtaining a Covid-19 vaccine certificate without which he would not be allowed to enter Saudi Arabia. This posed a big problem for a worker who relies on daily income living in Raymah southwest of Sana’a. He could not afford the travel costs to one of the governorates under the control of the internationally recognized Yemeni government to receive the vaccine there.

Instead, Jamil says that he had to purchase a forged vaccination certificate from a travel agency specialising in all means of travel based in the Yemeni capital Sana’a currently under the control of Al Houthi, for 400 Saudi Riyals ($106). After that, Jamil managed to complete his travel arrangements and arrived soon after to Saudi Arabia without any problem.

Going above the law

The two investigators tracked the case of Jamil and eleven other Yemeni travellers who obtained forged vaccine certificates revealing a glimpse of an established trade in forged certificates carried out by travel agencies and an army of brokers.

This is happening due to the failure of the authorities in applying the Yemeni Criminal and Penal Law which criminalizes all kinds of forgeries, as stated in the articles contained in the first and second parts of Chapter Eight of Law No. (12) issued in 1994.

Article (208) of the first chapter of the Law states that “Every person who forges the seal of the state, the seal of the president of the republic, or of a public employee or any entity whose employees count as public employees shall be punished by imprisonment for a period that does not exceed ten years. Any item used as part of the affairs of this entity to mark documents counts as a “seal.” A person who uses any of these aforementioned items shall receive the same punishment. Moreover, whoever uses a seal, or item and effectively harms the public or private goods shall be punished by imprisonment for a period that does not exceed two years. A person shall be exempted from punishment if he reports perpetrators to the competent public authorities before the crime takes place, before the search for the perpetrator begins, or if he facilitates the capture of the perpetrators even after the search for them starts”.

Concerning the forgery of official documents, Article (212) of the second chapter of the same law states, “A person who forges an official document or alters an actual official document to be used in a context that bears legal consequences shall be punished by imprisonment for a period that does not exceed five years. If this is done by a public employee while he is doing his job, he may be punished by imprisonment for a period that does not exceed seven years.”

Article (213) of the same law states, “If a public employee in charge of writing a document includes untruthful incidents or circumstances or knowingly ignores to provide proof of actual incidents or circumstances, that employee shall be punished by imprisonment for a period that does not exceed seven years.” Article (214) states, “Any public employee who commits a forgery in an official document, even if he is not in charge of writing it, shall be punished by imprisonment for a period that does not exceed five years.”

The legal advisor Abdel-Rahman Al-Zubaib points out that forging the Covid-19 vaccine certificates or the signatures of the Ministry of Health officials is a criminal act classified as a “serious crime” for which perpetrators are punished by imprisonment. If an employee issues a vaccine certificate illegally, he is punished by imprisonment for a period not exceeding seven years while the prison sentence may reach ten years as a penalty for forging the seal of the Ministry of Health.

Obtaining a certificate through forgery or corrupt officials

Travel or transport agencies provide electronic certificates of vaccination in two ways. The first is through a certificate bearing the QR code that leads to a forged website that mirrors the name and interface of the platform of the Yemeni Ministry of Health. This was designed to match the official website in every detail. Examining both URLs show a difference in only one feature whereby the letter (i) in the official website URL, is replaced by an (a) in the fake one.

This type of certificate is less expensive, and travellers can obtain them within two or three hours after submitting the information to the travel agency or a broker. The price of one certificate ranges from 200 to 400 Saudi Riyals, that is between $53 to $106 and the certificate data is often deleted from the site once travellers arrive at their destinations.

While searching through open sources, a paid Facebook page caught our attention, since it offered Covid-19 vaccine certificates (with fake links) for 500 Saudi Riyals ($133). Such pages are a paid category and last for a limited period of time before they are deleted.

We sent an inquiry about the service through the message feature on the page, and we received a prompt answer requesting the personal data, the passport number, and promising to send the certificate’s link the following morning. As a form of assurance, the person said that the fee does not have to be paid until after the certificate has been received and verified.

The second method affords the traveller an official certificate issued by the Ministry of Health with a real number, but it is usually granted even if the bearer never received a single vaccination jab for a fee that is set between 400 and 700 Saudi Riyals ($106 and $186). This process usually takes at least a day or two.

The travel agency or the broker issues usually a signed receipt for the traveller showing the amount paid for the vaccine certificate. In some cases, the receipt refers to the certificate as “logistical services” or “border transit”.

Under the pretext of obtaining some quotes to buy a certificate, we visited twenty-six travel agencies in Sana’a 50th Street, 60th Street, Al-Zubayri, Taiz Street and Al-Hasba. Twenty-two of them were immediately ready to provide certificates with forged or official numbers and at almost similar prices.

Such transactions are carried out in the open in Sana’a whose government is currently under the control of Al Houthi. Similar sales of forget vaccination documents exist in the parts of Yemen controlled by the internationally recognized government, although the process there is more discreet after contacting travel agencies in the governorates of Taiz, Hadhramaut, and Marib.

The situation varies slightly in the city of Aden where travel agencies are offering forged certificates to travellers without needing to hide behind brokers maybe due to the lax security in that part of Yemen.

We randomly chose three offices in Aden and inquired about the possibility of obtaining official vaccination certificates, and all three were keen to supply us with what we needed.

The website of the Ministry of Health was hacked

On August 4, 2021, the Ministry of Health announced that its website had been hacked. This suspended its activity for three days during which the hackers managed to steal some certificate numbers. The Ministry of Health did not announce how many of these were stolen.

Ahmad Al-Ta’zi is a pseudonym for the director of a travel agency south of Sana’a. He describes that period saying, “We had an IT engineer, or a hacker, who was able to hack a large number of certificates for us. My office’s share of that was more than a hundred certificates, but they were all cancelled. We made the best profit in that period as we would sell each certificate for 700 Saudi Riyals ($186). We gave a percentage of it to the engineer, and the rest was a net profit for the office.”


When the site was up again, it was more secure and could not be hacked. According to Al-Ta’zi, the transport offices resorted to coordinating with a network of brokers through whom they obtained ready-made official certificates from the Ministry of Health for 300 Saudi Riyals ($80) each.

As for coordinating with the intermediary network and the identity of the people involved, he clarifies that there is no specific person but rather a chain like number of intermediaries. You might contact one then they refer you to a second and perhaps to a third or fourth person in order to cover up for the actual person or official in charge. It is all done over the phone. In the end, what matters to the travel office is to obtain the required number of certificates.

To verify this part, we contacted brokers in Aden, Marib, Taiz, Shabwa and Sei’hun and pretended that we wanted to trade in certificates. They all confirmed their willingness to provide us with official certificates, regardless of the quantity requested.

We also discovered that some of those brokers were employed in some capacity with the Ministry of Health. One of those people whose identity we confirmed was an employee of the Covid-19 project of the Ministry of Public Health and Population. He said that he could provide us with 200 to 300 official certificates at once whenever we decided to buy them.

Until this point, it was possible to blame the availability of official certificates on the black market due to the hacking incident that lasted for 2 weeks. However, after the ministry’s website came back on line, the certificates of vaccination kept flowing in the market through travel agencies and brokers alike.

Network engineer Ammar Al-Falahi says, “What is suspicious is that when the site was re-launched after the hacking incident, the ministry did not make any changes to the certificates design, even though it acknowledged that the site had been hacked. It would be self-evident that the design should have been changed and that the numbers of all new certificates saved on the site should have been deleted. This reinforces the doubts that maybe the hack has been fabricated to create chaos and conceal the matter specially that it generates astronomical profits for some important people.”

We tried to communicate with officials in the Ministry of Public Health and Population in more than one way by contacting Minister Qassim Buhaibeh and Ali Al-Walidy, the Undersecretary of the Ministry and the director of the Covid-19 project. We also contacted Ishraq Al-Sibai’i, the spokesperson for the Supreme National Committee to Counter the Virus to find about their views regarding this matter and to give them the right to respond to the findings of this investigation. To date, we have not received any response.

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The original online link to the Coronavirus vaccine electronic certificate search system affiliated with the Yemeni Ministry of Health in Aden

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The online link to the fake website which mirrors the name and interface with the Yemeni Ministry of Health

Avoiding the cost and the difficulty of access

On the evening of December 3, 2021, Abdo Ahmad Al-Saidi and his twelve companions, including three women arrived to the Al-Wadeeia border crossing with Saudi Arabia in a four-wheel drive vehicle and stayed there overnight. The next morning, they were scheduled for a PCR test before crossing into Saudi. quote icon Al-Saidi says, “Our turn came at 1:00 pm, but we were surprised that our three female companions did not have vaccination certificates as they believed that this requirement was specific only to men. It didn’t take long for brokers and middlemen roaming in plain sight around the cars and buses to offer us a solution. Their offers were competitive. After five hours of waiting, the women obtained three certificates issued by the Ministry of Health for not more than 1,200 Saudi Riyals ($300). After that, we headed directly to the border crossing.”

Al-Saidi says that the procedures at the Yemeni side of the crossing were not complicated and did not take more than an hour. They match the tests and vaccinations certificates of new travellers and visitors and ask vaccinated Saudi residents for a copy of their data on the ‘Tawakalna’ application as proof that they had received the vaccine. Then, they stamp your passport and allow you to go through.

According to Al-Saidi, on the Saudi side of the crossing, the procedures are limited to verifying travellers’ data on the ‘Tawakalna’ application on which passenger data is saved once it is uploaded to the ‘Muqeem’ or residents’ platform. residents and visitors register entry requests to Saudi territories through this application.

Thousands of Yemeni travellers, especially those looking to work in Saudi Arabia, resort to buying fake vaccine certificates to avoid the costs and hardship of travelling to the parts of Yemen under the internationally recognised government control to get vaccinated. Sana’a and the northern parts of the country under the control of the Al-Houthi group lack vaccine centres.

Like many of his counterparts in travel offices, Al-Ta’zi justifies the fraud operation by describing it as a “benefit for all” since most Yemenis are experiencing financial hardships, and it is difficult for them to travel to other parts of the country to receive the vaccine. This is in addition to the repeated mistakes committed by vaccination centres in terms of entering a misspelt name, or inputting the wrong passport numbers which could complicate matters for the travellers.

Al-Ta’zi adds, “one of the reasons is that vaccine doses run out sometimes, as was the case with the AstraZeneca vaccine which started to be used at the beginning of July and until the end of September 2021. Many people’s businesses were impacted then, especially those who took the first dose of the vaccine and were scheduled to take the second one. This prompted travellers to rush to buy certificates from offices, especially in the case of expatriates whose visas were about to expire, which may have cost them a fine of more than 1,000 Saudi Riyals. ($270).”

All options are bad with unfair competition

Since the beginning of the last quarter of 2021, the demand for certificates issued by the fake Ministry of Health has doubled and caused a decline in the rate of demand for genuine certificates issued legitimately.

Judging by what he sees at his work, Al-Ta’zi cites reasons explaining that those who have residency in Saudi Arabia no longer buy certificate numbers off the forged link unless they are travelling for visiting purposes or going to a country other than Saudi Arabia. He says that this is because residents must upload their vaccination certificates to the Saudi Ministry of Health via the ‘Muqeem’ or ‘residents’ platform for approval before travelling, and it is likely that the Yemeni Ministry of Health is coordinating with its Saudi counterpart in this regard.

quote icon These documented cases are of travellers whose circumstances and motives may not differ, and they flock to travel agencies offices and brokers to obtain forged certificates in all the governorates of Yemen on a daily basis which goes against the law and increases corruption.