Yemen: Can Soccer Solve a Separatist Problem?

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Mohammed Dabbous / Reuters

Kuwait's Hussen Ali (L) and Musaeed Al Eneysi (R) fight for the ball with Yemen's Ali Nounou during their Gulf Cup soccer match in Abyan.

Countries hosting major soccer tournaments usually hope that home-field advantage and passionate local support will spur the national team to punch above their weight — and perhaps even miraculously defy the odds by winning. For Yemen, the 20th Gulf Cup of Nations is freighted with far greater expectations.

The government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh is hoping the tournament, which enters its semi-finals stage on Thursday, will help heal a longstanding national wound, repair the country's image in the eyes of the world, and persuade potential investors and tourists that Yemen is a good destination for their dollars.

(There's not much point hoping for sporting glory: the home team lost all three of its games and has already been eliminated.)

So far, so fabulous. The Gulf Cup, featuring eight teams from Arab nations, has been a roaring success. The two host provinces, Aden and Abyan, are enjoying the fruits of an estimated $1 billion of investment, tens of thousands of visitors and the heady atmosphere you'd expect from the biggest sporting event ever to be staged in Yemen. Soccer-related posters and banners are everywhere, and it seems half the male population is wearing team jerseys.

Saleh's gamble appears to be paying off. The president chose to hold the tournament in the southern provinces despite those being plagued by an on-and-off separatist insurgency. Aden and Abyan are the heart of what had been socialist South Yemen, before it united with the northern Yemen Arabic Republic in 1990. Unification has not been entirely smooth: the two regions fought a war in 1994, with the north prevailing. Southern separatists continue to mount violent attacks on security forces and state infrastructure.

The separatists main grouse is that since unification the south has been treated as a stepchild by the more powerful northerners: provinces like Aden and Abyan got little investment. Thousands of southerners lost their public sector jobs when their government was merged into the Sana'a-based central administration. So Saleh sought to mollify the south by having it host the Cup, with its attendant bounty of investment and jobs.

Fears were that separatists might use the international attention drawn by the cup to stage big attacks, but a massive security presence has largely prevented that. Apart from one attack last Sunday that killed a soldier in a town 170 km northeast of Aden, there has been little violence. "All the fears about security have been unfounded," says Foreign Minister Abubakr al-Qirbi.

Even the President's critics have been caught up in the excitement. "It's a beautiful experience for Yemen," says Nadia al-Sakkaf, editor of the independent Yemen Times newspaper. "It's a good move [by Saleh]." Opposition leader Ansaf Mayo, leader of the Islamist Islah party and an Aden native, acknowledges that "the Power" (his term for the Saleh government) is finally giving the ancient port city the attention it deserves. "We feel the momentum generated by the Cup will restore the city's importance," he says.

Nobody's suggesting the south is now satisfied with its lot in the unified country, but the success of the tournament has, at least for the time being, taken the wind out of the separatists' sails. And a respite in the south gives Saleh the chance to focus on two other raging conflicts: the rebellion by a northern Shi'ite sub-sect known as the Houthis, as well as the growing ambition of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. The president is coming under increasing pressure from the U.S. and Europe to stamp out AQAP, but many Yemenis think the Houthis are a more pressing threat to their country.

The relative absence of violence around the Cup is a boost for the reputation of Saleh's security forces, which haven't always enjoyed a reputation for efficiency and discipline. U.S.-trained counterterrorism forces are at large in Aden, to prevent AQAP from hijacking the tournament. Some locals chafe at the overwhelming security presence and the inconvenience of too many checkpoints, but their complaints are being drowned out by the goodwill generated by the Cup.

Making that goodwill last will be a challenge, however. Many locals worry that when the circus leaves town, so too will the investments and jobs. "If all the new hotels are empty after the Cup is over, then people will soon forget how much fun it was," warns Ramadan Mohammed, who works in the oil industry. "The South's problems can't be solved with two weeks of [soccer]."

Tourism minister Nabil al-Fakih is already feeling the pressure to keep visitors and investors coming after the tournament. Thanks to AQAP and the dire travel advisories by the U.S. and European government, he's not expecting very many Westerners. "It's very difficult to improve our image in the West," he says. But the Cup has given Aden plenty of exposure in the Arab world. "Arabs are not so sensitive [as Westerners are] and they understand our product," says al-Fakih. Among the south's attractions, he says, are historical and archeological sites, trekking and swimming opportunities, and fully clothed beaches.

The Cup, al-Fakih says, "gives us a chance to start again with a clean slate." Too bad the national team finished dead last.