x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Lessons learnt from Yemen's dark horse triumph as Cup host

For Sana'a, the Gulf Cup was an opportunity to challenge the myth of existing perceptions, to defy a narrative written by others, and to show the world the real Yemen.

At the end of last month, millions of football fans across the Arab world watched Kuwait win a thrilling Gulf Cup final. If that doesn't sound particularly remarkable, it is worth recalling a couple of points. First, the eight-nation tournament was hosted by Yemen, the supposed new frontline of the "war on terror".

Second, and most important, received wisdom before the competition was that Yemen would never be able to pull it off. As one of the more alarmist headlines in a US publication put it, "al Qa'eda bombings, drive-by shootings and penalty kicks - what are they thinking?"

I know what "they" were thinking because I spent two months in Yemen before the Cup working with the government to prepare for this landmark event. Make no mistake - the success of Gulf Cup 20 was a triumph for Yemen.

Hosting a major spectacle like this is, in essence, a national public relations exercise. For Sana'a, it was an opportunity to challenge the myth of existing perceptions, to defy a narrative written by others, and to show the world the real Yemen. By the same token, what made Gulf Cup 20 an important strategic communications event for Yemen also made it a risk - a risk that no one could take lightly, especially when there was no guarantee of success. To say the stakes were high would be an understatement.

Yet the country was determined to demonstrate Yemen was ready, had taken decisive action on a range of issues from security, logistics and infrastructure to international event management and transportation, and was prepared to succeed. Here's how they did it.

There are three essential ingredients in the recipe for a successful international event. First, you need the right event. From the Olympics to Formula 1, sport is a great unifying force for a nation. As everyone who lives here already knows, football is a passion in the Gulf. Just ask Qatar and recall the joy that swept across the country following Fifa's announcement that the country would be hosting the World Cup in 2022.

For Yemen, staging the Gulf Cup for the first time in the nation's history was a bold move in a region facing a number of strategic challenges. Many, if not most, observers said it couldn't be done. But Yemen's government refused to be cowed by the doomsayers. Rightly, it viewed these challenges as something to manage and master, rather than run away from. Get it right and the rewards would justify the risk.

Second, the country launched a comprehensive infrastructure, logistics and security programme to prepare for the tournament. Pristine four- and five-star hotels were built, and existing hotels were upgraded. Gulf investment flooded into Yemen. A state-of-the-art multi-million dollar stadium was constructed in Abyan, together with new training stadiums across Aden.

A large-scale security operation, unprecedented in the country's history, saw more than 30,000 security troops deployed to ensure a safe and secure tournament. The Yemeni government was keen to ensure international best practices on security, as with logistics and event management. Security measures underwent the most stringent review with experts on aviation, infrastructure and event management embedded as advisers within the Yemen government. Over 40 checkpoints were established across Aden, each with explosives detection teams. More than 1,000 vehicles were checked every hour, seven days a week, for two weeks. Hotels and airports implemented rigorous screening procedures.

Finally, with a robust communications programme in place, Yemen sent the right message to the world. It made every effort to offer political reassurance to its friends and neighbours, underlining that the safety of players, fans and visitors was the top priority. Intelligence-sharing between allies reinforced the message. Hosting the Gulf Cooperation Council security delegation in the run-up to the tournament convinced the seven other nations that participation in the tournament was in everyone's best interests. Yemen made the call, and the Gulf responded, standing shoulder to shoulder with their southern neighbour.

At the end of the tournament, as the Cup was being awarded to Kuwait, what was extraordinary to see was how visitors had their preconceptions turned on their head. One Gulf tourism minister told me how he had hurriedly prepared a will before boarding a flight to Yemen, only to find on arrival in Aden an entirely peaceful city in which he felt comfortable walking the streets until the early hours. I have lost count of the number of foreign visitors who reacted in the same way.

A successful sporting event like Gulf Cup 20 provides a nation with the ultimate opportunity to redefine itself. Yemen took the risk and succeeded.

 

James Le Mesurier is an expert in strategic urban security at Good Harbor Consulting based in Abu Dhabi