As Yemen takes on Saudi Arabia in the opening match of the 2010 Gulf Cup in Aden today, far more than football glory is at stake. Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is confident that hosting the 20th Gulf Cup will be a triumph for his country. We hope that he is right.
As recently as Saturday, two soldiers and one civilian were hurt as security forces tried to contain protests in the southern Dalea province, with hundreds of separatists protesting against hosting the tournament in the port city of Aden. Just last month, the May 22 stadium in Aden - one of two arenas staging matches - was twice hit by explosions in attacks that were also blamed on separatists. With 30,000 Yemeni troops deployed to maintain calm, hopes are high that the games will be enjoyed in peace. Amid growing pressure from the US and Saudi Arabia, Mr Saleh has insisted that security concerns in the south are his government's responsibility.
Fears about the safety of players nearly prevented the tournament from being held, but each member of the GCC has sent a squad to Yemen's restive southern region, demonstrating their solidarity with the Arabian peninsula's most troubled nation. If the event goes off without a hitch, we hope the competition can serve as an example of Yemen's ability to quell violence in the country. But the success, or otherwise, of the 12-day event, should not mask some of Yemen's long-term development problems, which will take more than security forces to solve.
For the other six GCC countries and Iraq, their participation is more a matter of symbolism than sporting pride, but their gesture should not be underestimated. The show of support with Yemen through sport should be a preview of more critical efforts.
With their stunning 2007 Asian Cup victory, the Iraqi national team showed that football can unite a politically divided country like few other forces. Let's hope that all Yemenis, whether from the north or south, get behind their team and make this a memorable event for their nation.