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World Cup 2022: As Saudi Arabia shines, Yemenis say don't forget about us

Yemen has been gripped by conflict since 2014, with more than 377,000 people estimated to have died as a result of direct fighting, hunger, and disease
Yemenis watch a World Cup 2022 match in a tent in the capital Sanaa (AFP/File photo)
By Ahmad Algohbary in Sanaa

It was a match for the ages.

Saudi Arabia staged one of the biggest upsets in football history when they beat Lionel Messi's star-studded Argentina at the Qatar World Cup last week.

The Falcons ended La Albiceleste (the Blue and White's) 36-match unbeaten streak in stunning fashion after two goals in quick succession from Saleh Al-Shehri and Salem Al-Dawsari cancelled out Messi's opener in the first-half.

When the referee blew the final whistle, there were jubilant scenes in the stands. The atmosphere was electric.

'Why has the international community forgotten that Yemenis are still in the midst of war?'

- Arwah al-Mutawakkil, Yemeni football fan

The nationalist song Long Live Salman - a reference to King Salman - was blasted out on repeat as the Saudis, some of whom were dressed in traditional robes, wrapped themselves in the national flag and performed the ardah dance. 

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Qatar's emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, joined in the festivities, and at one point wrapped a Saudi flag over his shoulders.

That moment would have been unthinkable nearly two years ago when Saudi Arabia and three other Arab nations boycotted Qatar as part of a political dispute.

Outside the stadium, honking cars formed impromptu parades as passers-by joined in the festivities with chants and cheers.

It seemed in that moment, all was forgiven. All was forgotten.

What blockade?

In 2017, Saudi Arabia joined Bahrain, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in cutting ties with Qatar and imposed a blockade on its neighbour over allegations that it supported "terrorism" and had close relations with Iran.

Doha denied the charges and said the boycott was aimed at curtailing its independence.

Qatar incurred heavy financial losses as a result of the blockade - estimated at around $43bn - with restrictions on movement splitting familial ties which went back centuries.

While the Qatar embargo ended early last year - and the parties have restored full diplomatic and economic ties - Yemenis say they hope the international community won't forget about their plight as the Saudi team dazzles on the field.

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"What the Saudi team has achieved in Qatar is truly remarkable, but why has the international community forgotten that Yemenis are still in the midst of war?," said Arwah al-Mutawakkil, a resident in the Yemeni capital city, Sanaa.

"We hope the world celebrates the football but doesn't forget about us."

For more than seven years, western powers have supported the Saudi-led coalition in its war with Yemen's Houthi rebels, selling a vast array of weapons to the kingdom and providing the coalition with intelligence, military advice, and logistical support.

The Houthis, who seized the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, in 2014, maintain that their takeover was necessary to defend the Shia Zaidi community against the Yemeni government's marginalisation of them, as well as foreign aggression.

The UN estimates that over the past seven years, direct fighting, hunger, and disease have led to the deaths of more than 377,000 people.

While clashes still continue, a truce has largely held since April, with no new Saudi air attacks reported by either local or international media. But still, the coalition's debilitating air, land, and naval blockade remains in force.

To tweet or not to tweet?

While anti-Saudi sentiment has grown amongst most Yemenis in recent years, there were bizarre reactions from some prominent Houthi leaders in the wake of the shock win.

"A thousand congratulations for the victory of the Saudi national team over its Argentina team. This victory put Arab football back on the map," tweeted Dhaifallah al-Shami, a member of the political bureau of the Houthi movement.

Abdul-Qader al-Mortada, the Houthi chairman of the Committee for Prisoners' Affairs, was another who later deleted his tweet congratulating Saudi Arabia.

"A thousand congratulations" to the Falcons he wrote. Mortada later explained that his tweet was a message of brotherhood to the people of "Hejaz and Najd", using the names of two well-known regions in Saudi Arabia, rather than the country’s name itself.

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"The wounds of our people from the House of Saud are deep… I offer my deepest apologies," he added.

Mohammad Abdelwasi al-Wajeeh, a TV anchor for the Houthis’ Al Masirah channel, said he was offended by Yemeni support for the Saudi side.

"Whoever said that football is a soft war [soft power] method by which Westerners pass on whatever they want to billions of people … is right," he tweeted.

"It offended me a lot when the majority congratulated the Saudi team because they are Arab … they can all go to hell."

Others, however, felt the Houthis were blurring the lines by making the Saudi Arabian football team synonymous with the state.

Abdulhamid al-Kamali, a member of the Yemeni Association for Sports Media, told MEE that football was a space where people should put aside their differences and enjoy the magic on the field.

"I don't think there's a nationalist or an Arab fan who will favour Tunisia over Morocco. Both represent the Arabs. Therefore, all our ambitions and support are directed towards all Arab teams without discrimination," he said.

"When Tunisia starts playing, we will sing their national anthem. And the same goes for Morocco, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia."

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