Source: New York Times
By: ROBERT F. WORTH 06\12\2010
This decaying port city, near the heart of Yemen’s deadly Qaeda insurgency, may seem an odd place to host an international soccer tournament.
Yet there they were, tens of thousands of fans from across the Arab world, packed into a vast stadium on Sunday night to watch the final game of theGulf Cup. No one seemed to care much that a small army of police officers was guarding the streets outside, or that Yemen’s national team lost in the first round.
Kuwait took the title with a 1-0 win over Saudi Arabia on Sunday, but the real victory, many said, belonged to Yemen: the two-week tournament finished without a single terrorist attack.
“What was broken is fixed! Our people, with strength in unity!” a voice from the loudspeaker sang out at earsplitting volume. The fans — many of whose faces were painted in the colors of the Saudi, Yemeni and Kuwaiti flags — roared their approval.
The tournament, which featured teams from eight Persian Gulf states, was a concerted effort by Yemen’s government to change the country’s image as an insurgent battleground and wellspring of global terrorism plots, including an attempt in October to send explosive packages to the United States. It seems to have succeeded, at least in this part of the world.
“I wrote a will before coming here, and my family begged me not to go,” said Ahmed Salami, a 29-year-old Kuwaiti photographer. “But I discovered all the things we have heard are untrue: Yemen is beautiful!”
Arab journalists have produced glowing accounts of the tournament, and of their warm reception in Aden. An article published by a Kuwaiti newspaper under the headline “The Lie of a Million” mocked threats by Yemeni secessionists to disrupt the games with a demonstration by a million people.
The victory did not come cheaply or easily. Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, spent months lobbying reluctant Arab leaders to send their teams to a country that has become known for bloodshed and insurrection.
Yemeni officials said they spent $600 million on the event and sent 30,000 police officers and soldiers to secure the tournament’s sites. The government built a dozen new hotels and renovated more than 100 old ones to host the 500,000 fans who attended the Gulf Cup.
Tickets were free, and visitors were bused to the matches; the government did not want to risk half-empty stadiums. All this in a country where half the population lives on $2 or less a day.
The ecstatic mood seems to have forestalled all criticism. Even members of the secessionist movement joined in the celebrations, and many said that Mr. Saleh’s gamble had paid off, whatever the cost.
“By God, Ali Abdullah Saleh succeeded,” Bashir Nashwan, a taxi driver who supports the Islamist opposition party, said as high-powered fireworks shook the earth around him and young men howled with delight as they sped past. “People thought it could not be done, but he did it.”
Up until the last minute, some Yemenis said they were afraid that the tournament would end in disaster. One of the two stadiums was in Abyan Province, an embattled area 15 miles from here, where scores of Yemeni soldiers and police officers have been killed by Al Qaeda in recent months. And jihadists had threatened to turn the games into a bloodbath.
Foreign leaders were so nervous about sending teams to Abyan that the Yemeni authorities had to arrange two exhibition matches in the stadium there, televised live, to help persuade them to come.
Six field hospitals had been set up in case of casualties during the tournament, and the police used dogs to check for explosives. During the matches, military helicopters circled the stadiums and armored personnel carriers thundered through the streets of Aden.
Helmet-clad riot police officers watched the stadium entrances, and an army of plainclothes police officers loitered throughout the city, sizing up passers-by.
No foreign security forces were visible, though the United States has stepped up its military role in Yemen in the past year and has carried out airstrikes on suspected Qaeda bases.
In part, the games were an effort to heal an old national wound. Northern Yemen and Southern Yemen were separate countries until May 1990, and they fought a brief butbloody civil war in 1994.
Grievances have grown worse since the end of the war, with southern Yemenis claiming the north has appropriated their lands and is starving them of jobs and state money.
A southern protest movement began three years ago and soon grew into open calls for secession. It is common to hear southerners say life was far better under the British, who occupied Aden and other parts of southern Yemen from 1839 until 1967.
Members of the Southern Movement, as the secessionist group is known, threatened mass demonstrations at the soccer tournament.
But the movement decided to refrain, not wishing to offend the many foreign fans who traveled to Aden, said one movement leader, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared repercussions from the government. “We decided it is better not to mix sports and politics,” he said. “The regime could take advantage of this.”
The secessionists might not have had much choice. With 40 checkpoints in and around Aden, and throngs of police in the streets, organizing protests would not have been easy.
The tournament has not eased the underlying grievances, and protests could resume after the national intoxication over the Gulf Cup fades.
“There is no justice,” said Khaled Adeni, 48, a heavyset man who was sitting in an alley in Aden’s Krater district as the final game was about to begin. “The government takes all the country’s riches. There are no jobs here, no money.”
But when asked about the Gulf Cup, his face melted into a smile.
“The games are great! This isn’t about politics. We are all Arabs!”