This story was originally covered by PRI's The World. For more, listen to the audio above.
Yemen seems like an odd choice for an international soccer venue. The country is home to controversial Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, it's where the "underwear bomber" got explosives sewn into his shorts last Christmas, and it's where explosive laden packages bound for the United States began their journey last month. It's also currently home to The Gulf Cup of Nations soccer tournament.
The situation in Yemen was not as bad four years ago, when organizers selected the country to host this year's tournament, Middle East-based journalist Laura Kasinof of Foreign Policy magazine told PRI's The World. The reasoning behind the selection was this: Yemen is the only country in the Arabian Gulf that is not a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a conglomeration of oil-rich countries for which there are many economic benefits. The country hardly fits in with the rest of the GCC -- it has ongoing security concerns and is much poorer than most of its neighbors. Successfully hosting the cup could give the country more status and impact it positively.
It is still surprising, though, that the venue was not changed. There have been several assassination attempts by al-Qaeda in the region where the cup is scheduled to be held, and the situation has declined significantly even in the last couple months. Despite talk about postponement or relocation of the tournament, no alternate plans were made and the cup began as planned.
Yemen's capitol city, Sanaa, is more secure than the south, where the matches are being held. Movement of the matches to the capitol, then, seems like an obvious answer to the teams' (and fans) security concerns. Sanaa, though, is at too high an elevation to be recognized by FIFA, the world's international soccer organization. Cup organizers want to be recognized by the organization, so are doing their best to comply with the organization's standards.
The Yemeni government is taking the host responsibilities very seriously, and if the cup is interrupted, it will be a major blow to the pride of the central government and the country's reputation. They have sent 30,000 additional troops into the areas where the matches are being played. Also, over the last several months, they made several offensives against al-Qaeda in the region, purportedly aiming to discourage them from disrupting the cup.
So far, the BBC reports that "Yemen is proving itself to be a perfect host" for the tournament, despite any fears. The final match for The Gulf Cup of Nations will take place on December 5th.
PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston.