Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Al Qaeda Bombings, Drive-By Shootings, and Penalty Kicks?

In two weeks, a major international soccer tournament will be held in southern Yemen -- one of the most dangerous places on Earth. What are they thinking?

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

SANAA, Yemen – International sporting events can be a great way for a country to rehabilitate its image. For two weeks in 2008, for instance, the world focused not on China's treatment of Tibet or economic policies, but on its stunning Olympic facilities and the spirit of apolitical international competition. This summer, South Africa used the World Cup to put forward an image of an emerging "rainbow nation" unencumbered by racial tension or poverty. But compared with Yemen, which plans to host the Middle East's largest soccer tournament later this November, those countries had it easy.

The international media generally only focuses on Yemen when it emerges as the source of an international terrorist plot, as it did in October after a failed attempt to send explosives in packages to the United States was traced back to the unstable Middle Eastern country and after the failed underwear bomber plot of last Christmas. But even when the world is not watching, shootouts at police checkpoints, attacks on oil pipelines, and assassinations of government officials are regular occurrences in Yemen's southeastern region, where the central government's control runs thin.

SANAA, Yemen

International sporting events can be a great way for a country to rehabilitate its image. For two weeks in 2008, for instance, the world focused not on China’s treatment of Tibet or economic policies, but on its stunning Olympic facilities and the spirit of apolitical international competition. This summer, South Africa used the World Cup to put forward an image of an emerging "rainbow nation" unencumbered by racial tension or poverty. But compared with Yemen, which plans to host the Middle East’s largest soccer tournament later this November, those countries had it easy.

The international media generally only focuses on Yemen when it emerges as the source of an international terrorist plot, as it did in October after a failed attempt to send explosives in packages to the United States was traced back to the unstable Middle Eastern country and after the failed underwear bomber plot of last Christmas. But even when the world is not watching, shootouts at police checkpoints, attacks on oil pipelines, and assassinations of government officials are regular occurrences in Yemen’s southeastern region, where the central government’s control runs thin.

All this makes it doubly strange that on Nov. 22, six national soccer teams from across the Arabian Peninsula plus Iraq will arrive in the southern Yemeni governorates of Aden and Abyan — the most unstable region of one of the world’s most unstable countries — to compete in the Gulf Cup of Nations, a two-week tournament sponsored by the Committee of Gulf Football Unions.

Although al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) — the al Qaeda offshoot implicated in the recent "printer bomb" plot — hasn’t released a specific statement against the Gulf Cup yet, leaders of Yemen’s burgeoning southern separatist movement have called on Gulf countries to boycott the event. "The situation in the south is an occupation, and the participation of these countries means recognition of the injustice perpetrated by the regime in Sanaa against the people of the south," said Abdo al-Matary, a separatist spokesperson, in a meeting with the Yemeni media. "How can there be an international game in light of the massacres committed? … Do they want to play football on the blood of the south?"

Southern separatists say their region has been marginalized by Yemen’s northern tribes, of which President Ali Abdullah Saleh is a member. Although they reject ties with AQAP, the southern separatists have attacked places and figures representing the central government. (Saleh has tried to make the case that the two militant groups are working together, but there’s little evidence this is the case.)

The violence surrounding the tournament has already begun. On Oct. 11, a bomb attack on al Wahda soccer stadium in Aden killed three civilians. Two weeks later, police claimed to have foiled yet another plot against the stadium. The government has dispatched 30,000 additional troops to the region to boost security, and it is widely believed that recent army offensives against alleged AQAP hideouts in the region were meant at least in part to intimidate militants from trying to thwart the tournament in any way. In a statement, al Qaeda denied that it was behind the stadium attacks, claiming it only targets "criminals from the Americans and the crusaders and their followers from the security forces and intelligence officers."

In light of all this, one might wonder what the organizers were thinking in the first place. The idea, when Yemen was picked four years ago by a regional soccer body to host the 2010 competition, was that the event would be a means by which the country could engage with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the conglomeration of six oil-rich countries on the Arabian Peninsula of which underdeveloped Yemen — with a GDP per capita of $2,500 — is the odd man out. Yemen is due to join the GCC by 2016, which could mean greater economic investment from its far wealthier neighbors. By introducing the country into the GCC slowly through collaboration in areas like sports, health, and education, the council can see whether Yemen will make the grade. But Yemen has never hosted an international event of this size in recent history.

As for why the tournament is being held in the south, it’s because the more stable capital city of Sanaa lies in the northern mountains, at around 7,200 feet in elevation, too high to meet the standards of international soccer. While the tournament is not yet affiliated with soccer’s global governing body, FIFA, organizers hope that it will be soon and have gone overboard to make sure that the event is up to snuff. But it’s fair to say that most other destinations for international sporting events don’t grapple with the persistent threat of violence that Yemen does.

In light of Yemen’s recent instability, local media have been speculating that the tournament might be moved to another country or canceled altogether. Bahrain has offered to host the event in case a last-minute decision is made to relocate. However, at a meeting held in the United Arab Emirates in mid-October, the GCC and Iraq decided to continue supporting Yemen as the host country.

"There still are some worries about security in Yemen, and that’s a fact," said

Ali Khalifa al Khalifa,

vice presdient of Bahrain Football Association. "Everyone who is going is worried, not just Bahrain, but I think at the end of the day Yemen is a friend and an ally, so [the other countries] will participate."

For the Yemeni government, pulling the tournament off successfully is an important sign to its wealthier neighbors that it maintains control over its territory, particularly in light of the bad publicity following the printer-bomb plot. Deputy Minister of Youth and Sports Moammar Al-Eryani projected confidence. "I think that the championships will not be more worrying than the World Cup in South Africa," he said. "In South Africa the crime is very high. The whole world was scared of this, yet everything went peacefully. Even we were surprised."

Yemenis say this tournament is as important to them as the World Cup is to the rest of world. Organized events, whether sport-related or cultural, are a rarity in this country. Youth, who don’t have much else going on in their lives aside from chewing khat, a popular mildly narcotic plant, are eager to engage in any sort of planned activity.

"As a person who lives in Sanaa, it brings me and my friends a very big opportunity to go to Aden for fun, watch the game, and support the national team," said Ahmed Asery, 24, a medical student at Sanaa University.

Yemenis are very attuned to the outside world’s negative impression of their country — and very bothered by it. If the GCC soccer clubs end up deciding that the  security situation is too precarious to host the tournament, it will just be one more reminder for the Yemeni people of their country’s trajectory toward failure, surrounded by wealthy states that are all too happy to ignore their troublesome neighbor.

Laura Kasinof is a journalist and author of Don’t Be Afraid of the Bullets: An Accidental War Correspondent in Yemen. She was the New York Times correspondent in Yemen during the Arab Spring. Twitter: @kasinof

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