In Yemen, a country broken by years of conflict, sports reveal internal social dynamics. Football is one of the rare sources of national unity.
The city of Say’un, in the heart of the Hadhramaut region of eastern Yemen, gives the impression that the war is on hold for a few days. In January 2020, the Yemen Football Federation organized a competition: al-Batulat al-Tanshîtîya, meaning the “the recovery championship”. It was a sports tournament that brought together 35,000 spectators from all the governorates of this divided country to support their favorite clubs or just to take advantage of the resumption of a sports championship that had been abandoned since 2014.
This event is symbolic of life trying to take hold over an armed conflict that has taken root over time. The war that has been tearing Yemen apart since 2014 comes under the local backdrop of political tensions and polyscalar, multifaceted armies. Despite the rise of revolutionary movements by educated urban youths in 2011, the buildup of the country’s crises since its reunification did not bring about a favorable policy result. And the country became mired in war.
Sports facilities targeted by the war
From 2015, sporting infrastructure seen as having potential for military installations was targeted by the warring parties. Today, according to government sources and stakeholders in the Yemeni sports world, between 70% and 80% of Yemen’s sporting infrastructure has been destroyed or are hard to use. This destruction mainly concerns the regions that have been under the control of or were at some time controlled by the Houthi forces. This militia originated in the north of the country, more specifically in the region of Sa’dah, and has taken on the role of the protector of the political, cultural and religious identity of Zaydism, a branch of Shia Islam, one of the three main branches of Islam.
Many sports complexes and the main stadiums in Sanaa, Aden, al-Hudaydah and Taiz are now in ruins. The city of Say’un never fell to the Houthi militias and has been considered as marginal in the conflict, having been spared by the war. There is therefore easy access to the city for citizens from other regions of the country. In this geopolitical set up, Say’un was chosen by the national sports federations that wanted to organize the resumption of discontinued national sports. Since 2019, the city has hosted national championships for many sports.
Football: a national passion in Yemen
As, in 2020, the median age of the population was estimated at 20 years, sports are very popular in this country characterized by its young population. Like in all Middle Eastern societies, football is king. Under British influence at the end of the 19th century, the port of Aden was one of football’s gateways to the country and even played a role in the sport’s spread throughout the Arabian Peninsula. Born in Aden, Ali Mohsen al-Muraisi, whose name was given to the main stadium in Sanaa (partially destroyed), remains a legendary Yemeni football star. He earned his glory in the 1960s with the Egyptian club, Zamalek.
Other sports such as basketball, handball, volleyball and boxing are also popular in local communities. But their popularity varies around the country. The mountainous geography and the large expanses of rural areas are a major obstacle to their widespread adoption in Yemeni society.
Sports or resistance in a fragmented land
Official sports championships were cancelled throughout the country in 2015. And yet, behind this appearance of interrupted sports activities – and despite the intensity, the fierceness and the horrors of the armed conflict raging in this war-torn country – sports continue to be played. During periods when there is a lull in fighting, they come back to life informally or in the remains of the club infrastructure that is still standing.
Faced with a war with no end in sight, the Ministry of Youth and Sports of the UN-recognized government, but also that of the government run by the Houthis in Sanaa, are trying to help organize competitions in the governorates. Some young people, including some players at clubs who play for the national team, come to enjoy their favorite sport to get away from the war.
In this situation, the clubs appear to be key components. Often owned by businessmen, they remain the pillars of continued sports activities. Matches and informal tournaments have been organized on the club level, outside any official framework, to try and maintain their level but also to train some youths who miss competition. These are in-house decisions that the federal sports authorities hardly approve of.
A match between the clubs and the national federations, with political overtones
National championships are resuming in a complex context: the national sports federations want to put an end to the fragmentation of sports by taking back control of the clubs and playing areas. For the UN-recognized government’s Ministry of Sports, there are also political stakes – it is a question of limiting manipulation of this symbolic sector by political adversaries.
But despite this sports revival and the visible informal practices, problems endemic to a country at war quickly come to the fore as the conflicts progress. Far from Say’un, in the cities of the western part of the country marred by armed tensions, several athletes were recently killed by attacks. In December 2020, the former Yemeni football player Nasser al-Rimi was murdered in Taiz while overseeing children’s football practice. That same month, 11 athletes were killed, including Ali Al-Saudi and Abdullah Arif Abd Rabbo, players on the national team.
Along with these human tragedies there is financial hardship. The clubs complain that they do not have the financial means to maintain viable sports activities and that they do not receive enough income from the national and international federations. One of the structural problems is the stranglehold over the central institutions of the national sports system exercised by former leaders put in place in the early 2000s under the presidency of Ali Abdullah Saleh. This is the case of the president of the football federation, Ahmed Saleh al-Eissi, who is close to the current president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
These ongoing problems were already hindering the development of high-level sports in Yemen before the war. This situation is in contrast with that of young athletes born to Yemeni parents who immigrated to the Gulf countries; they contribute to the dynamism of sports in those countries.
The Yemen national team: the pride of the entire nation
The financial difficulties also push high-level athletes to emigrate in order to make a living from their sport. For those who stay in Yemen, the national team stands out as an opportunity for them to raise their profile among foreign clubs despite the financial and logistical difficulties of getting out of an isolated country. This situation gives us a better understanding of the Yemen men’s football team’s qualification for the first time in its history for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup.
In order to facilitate the Yemeni players’ preparation for the AFC Asian Cup, Qatar authorized players from the team to play in its championship in 2018, providing them with out-of-quota contracts subject to nationality criteria. The football team’s players did not display any political tendencies and made the country proud, bringing together all Yemeni fans under one flag during the historic competition.
On a sporting level, this participation was nonetheless disappointing as the team lost all its matches. But representing Yemen for the first time in history at this continental sports competition, not to mention in wartime, was already a feat of its own for the Yemeni football team.
Sports in Yemen: women’s sports fall victim to the conflict
The situation is even more complicated for Yemeni women’s sports during this wartime period. There already were gender inequalities before the war, but physical activity for women, which was mainly practiced by women in educated urban environments, has broken down little by little during the conflict. The lack of financing that already affected men’s sports institutions has been taken on new dimensions for women’s sports.
Under these conditions, many Yemenis have turned away from sports and have focused on their professions as a simple survival reflex. Like the boxer Siham Amer, women are nonetheless attempting to overcome the obstacles of the war in order to thrive in their disciplines and, despite the constraints, maintain the local women’s sports fabric.
A time for sports in a time of war
In the 1980s, football was a source of hope and means of reconciliation between the two Yemen societies at the time. Today, the local situation is different, with regional stakeholders who all have their own agendas, structuring the conflict by constantly resorting to military force. Despite these sharp divisions made worse by more than five years of war, sports are making a comeback as a way to adapt and to deal with this chronic instability.
Against all odds, the time of sports is trying to take precedence over the time of war. Like the “recovery championship” and the historical feat of the 2019 Yemeni football team, there are many examples of the social interactions in the country.
This persistent practice, however, must not overshadow the humanitarian tragedy of Yemeni society. The Covid-19 epidemic, on top of the armed clashes, malnutrition and epidemic outbreaks of cholera that hit sectors of the local population weakened by the ongoing war, prompt fears of a worsening human toll.
So long as the political components cannot come to an agreement, and so long as the various Yemeni and foreign stakeholders stubbornly engage in military confrontation, sports will remain a precarious space for physical expression.
The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.