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Time is running out to pay attention to the crisis in the Yemen

The West must turn to the world's "forgotten crisis" - before it becomes too big to forget. 

The horrifying images of starving children, women, and men coming out of Yemen tell a story to the world that we Yemenis have known for a while: the country is sliding into a wide-scale famine while all sides of the conflict turn a blind eye to the suffering of millions of innocent civilians.

While an alliance of the Houthi rebel movement and the ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh continues to persecute their opponents in the areas they control, and besiege and shell Taiz, the country’s third-largest city, in an effort to consolidate their control over the central part of Yemen, the Saudi-led coalition besieges most of the country and indiscriminately targets civilian areas and infrastructure. The worst single incident took place earlier this month when an airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition on a funeral hall in Sana’a left an estimated 140 dead and 525 injured. With a crumbling health system unable to cope, the majority of the injured were not able to travel abroad for treatment as the Saudis have forced the closure of Sana’a airport for nearly two months.  

Caught between the two sides, the Yemeni people have little to hope for, especially as they have lost faith in the “international system” which has so far showed total disregard for upholding international humanitarian law and basic human rights in the country. The UK, for instance, has shown unwavering support for the Saudi-led coalition, to which it supplies arms (Britain has sold more than £3.7bn of arms to Saudi Arabia since the airstrikes began), military advisors, and an umbrella to shield its activities from any international inquiry into human rights violations. A motion to withdraw support from the Saudi coalition until an independent UN investigation has examined whether its bombing campaign is in breach of international law was defeated yesterday in the House of Commons by 283 votes to 193.

The British government was equally happy to promote the Saudi justification of the funeral hall bombing as a “deliberate error” made by an “individual”. This justification attempted to convince people, in a darkly comic scenario, that the Houthi/Saleh alliance planted a junior officer in the coalition war room, who was then somehow able to force the funeral airstrike through the system in breach of operation procedures. At the least this is an insult to basic human intelligence, as the Houthi/Saleh alliance would have no incentive to target its own top military and political leaders, a number of whom were attending the funeral and were killed or injured. It is shameful that the UK has given credibility to this story.

Yemen was already the poorest country in the Middle East region even before the war started. As the conflict has escalated, the small economy that existed has crumbled. Social welfare transfers to the poorest of the poor stopped nearly two years ago. Private-sector jobs have almost vanished as the ongoing conflict, blockade, and airstrikes have targeted factories and businesses either directly or indirectly. Fuel shortages, water scarcity, import blockades, and the destruction of roads and ports have destroyed agriculture. The last lifeline for millions of Yemenis, public sector salaries, stopped in August.

The past year and a half has shown that neither persecutor of this conflict will achieve a military victory and nor, left to their own devices, will they reach agreement. The UK and other leading powers must find their moral spine and exert pressure on all sides to strike a deal.

A further thought: Yemen has been labeled in the past few months as “the forgotten crisis”. However, as a population of 26 million people runs out of options for its survival, it is hard to imagine that this disaster will continue to be contained within the country’s borders. By then it might be too late to “remember” the Yemeni crisis.       

Rafat Al-Akhali is a Fellow of Practice at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford, and a former cabinet minister in the government of Yemen.

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Arsène Wenger: The Innovator in Old Age

As the Arsenal manager announces his departure from the club after more than two decades, the New Statesman editor, Jason Cowley, appreciates English football’s first true cosmpolitan. 

How to account for the essence of a football club? The players and managers come and go, of course, and so do the owners. The fans lose interest or grow old and die. Clubs relocate to new grounds. Arsenal did so in the summer of 2006 when they moved from the intimate jewel of a stadium that was Highbury to embrace the soulless corporate gigantism of the Emirates. Clubs can even relocate to a new town or to a different part of a city, as indeed Arsenal also did when they moved from south of the Thames to north London in 1913 (a land-grab that has never been forgiven by their fiercest rivals, Tottenham). Yet something endures through all the change, something akin to the Aristotelian notion of substance.

Before Arsène Wenger arrived in London in late September 1996, Arsenal were one of England’s most traditional clubs: stately, conservative, even staid. Three generations of the Hill-Wood family had occupied the role of chairman. In 1983, an ambitious young London businessman and ardent fan named David Dein invested £290,000 in the club. “It’s dead money,” said Peter Hill-Wood, an Old Etonian who had succeeded his father a year earlier. In 2007, Dein sold his stake in the club to Red & White Holdings, co-owned by the Uzbek-born billionaire Alisher Usmanov, for £75m. Not so dead after all.

In the pre-Wenger years, unfairly or otherwise, the Gunners were known as “lucky Arsenal”, a pejorative nickname that went back to the 1930s. For better or worse, they were associated with a functional style of play. Under George Graham, manager from 1986 to 1995, they were exponents of a muscular, sometimes brutalist, long-ball game and often won important matches 1-0. Through long decades of middling success, Arsenal were respected but never loved, except by their fans, who could be passionless when compared to, say, those of Liverpool or Newcastle, or even the cockneys of West Ham.

Yet Wenger, who was born in October 1949, changed everything at Arsenal. This tall, thin, cerebral, polyglot son of an Alsatian bistro owner, who had an economics degree and was never much of a player in the French leagues, was English football’s first true cosmopolitan.

He was naturally received with suspicion by the British and Irish players he inherited (who called him Le Professeur), the fans (most of whom had never heard of him) and by journalists (who were used to clubbable British managers they could banter with over a drink). Wenger was different. He was reserved and self-contained. He refused to give personal interviews, though he was candid and courteous in press conferences during which he often revealed his sly sense of humour.

He joined from the Japanese J League side, Nagoya Grampus Eight, where he went to coach after seven seasons at Monaco, and was determined to globalise the Gunners. This he did swiftly, recruiting players from all over the world but most notably, in his early years, from France and francophone Africa. I was once told a story of how, not long after joining the club, Wenger instructed his chief scout, Steve Rowley, to watch a particular player. “You’ll need to travel,” Wenger said. “Up north?” “No – to Brazil,” came the reply. A new era had begun.

Wenger was an innovator and disrupter long before such concepts became fashionable. A pioneer in using data analysis to monitor and improve performance, he ended the culture of heavy drinking at Arsenal and introduced dietary controls and a strict fitness regime. He was idealistic but also pragmatic. Retaining Graham’s all-English back five, as well as the hard-running Ray Parlour in midfield, Wenger over several seasons added French flair to the team – Nicolas Anelka (who was bought for £500,000 and sold at a £22m profit after only two seasons), Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pirès. It would be a period of glorious transformation – Arsenal won the Premier League and FA Cup “double” in his first full season and went through the entire 2003-2004 League season unbeaten, the season of the so-called Invincibles.

The second decade of Wenger’s long tenure at Arsenal, during which the club stopped winning titles after moving to the bespoke 60,000-capacity Emirates Stadium, was much more troubled. Beginning with the arrival of the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich in 2003, the international plutocracy began to take over the Premier League, and clubs such as Chelsea and Manchester City, much richer than Arsenal, spent their way to the top table of the European game. What were once competitive advantages for Wenger – knowledge of other leagues and markets, a worldwide scouting network, sports science – became routine, replicated even, in the lower leagues.

Wenger has spoken of his fear of death and of his desire to lose himself in work, always work. “The only possible moment of happiness is the present,” he told L’Équipe in a 2016 interview. “The past gives you regrets. And the future uncertainties. Man understood this very fast and created religion.” In the same interview – perhaps his most fascinating – Wenger described himself as a facilitator who enables “others to express what they have within them”. He yearns for his teams to play beautifully. “My never-ending struggle in this business is to release what is beautiful in man.”

Arsène Wenger is in the last year of his contract and fans are divided over whether he should stay on. To manage a super-club such as Arsenal for 20 years is remarkable and, even if he chooses to say farewell at the end of the season, it is most unlikely that any one manager will ever again stay so long or achieve so much at such a club – indeed, at any club. We should savour his cool intelligence and subtle humour while we can. Wenger changed football in England. More than a facilitator, he was a pathfinder: he created space for all those foreign coaches who followed him and adopted his methods as the Premier League became the richest and most watched in the world: one of the purest expressions of let it rip, winner-takes-all free-market globalisation, a symbol of deracinated cosmopolitanism, the global game’s truly global league. 

(2017)

Postscript

Arsène Wenger has announced he is stepping down, less than a year after signing a new two-year contract in the summer of 2017. A run to the Europa League finals turned out not to be enough to put off the announcement to the end of the season.

Late-period Wenger was defined by struggle and unrest. And the mood at the Emirates stadium on match day was often sour: fans in open revolt against Wenger, against the club’s absentee American owner Stan Kroenke, against the chief executive Ivan Gazidis, and sometimes even against one another, with clashes between pro and anti-Wenger factions. As Arsenal’s form became ever more erratic, Wenger spoke often of how much he suffered. “There is no possibility not to suffer,” he said in March 2018. “You have to suffer.”

Arsenal once had special values, we were told, and decision-making was informed by the accumulated wisdom of past generations. But the club seems to have lost any coherent sense of purpose or strategic long-term plan, beyond striving to enhance the profitability of the “franchise”.

The younger Wenger excelled at discovering and nurturing outstanding young players, especially in his early seasons in north London. But that was a long time ago. Under his leadership, Arsenal became predictable in their vulnerability and inflexibility, doomed to keep repeating the same mistakes, especially defensive mistakes. They invariably faltered when confronted by the strongest opponents, the Manchester clubs, say, or one of the European super-clubs such as Bayern Munich or Barcelona.

Wenger’s late struggles were a symbol of all that had gone wrong at the club. The vitriol and abuse directed at this proud man was, however, often painful to behold.

How had it come to this? There seems to be something rotten in the culture of Arsenal football club. And Wenger suffered from wilful blindness. He could not see, or stubbornly refused to see, what others could: that he had become a man out of a time who had been surpassed by a new generation of innovators such as Pep Guardiola and Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino. “In Arsene we trust”? Not anymore. He had stayed too long. Sometimes the thing you love most ends up killing you.

 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.