Football fields and killing fields are all part of this game, yet only one seems to matter

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It was one of those highly rare and vitally important photographs, the sort that made some people question the entire direction and the current location of humanity at a mere glance.

Taken by Tyler Hicks of the New York Times in October of 2018, the girl featured was seven-years-old and went by the name of Amal Hussain, although such personal and dignified descriptions didn’t seem befitting given what we were looking at. She was emaciated, like a rabid animal left to cruelly waste away under a car, as her ribs threatened to break through her sore-riddled skin. Her face alone was a reminder of the innocence her body railed against.

As grotesque goes, it ranked with ‘the vulture and the little girl’ from Sudan in 1993 that saw Kevin Carter capture a Pulitzer Prize only to commit suicide months later; or more recently the image of the boy in the back of a Syrian bus covered in blood and dust as if an old, dirty and discarded doll left on a trash heap somewhere far away or over there.

Fortunate or otherwise, both those kids survived the initial horror however.

Amal Hussain didn’t.

When Hicks clicked on his camera that day, she was already a cold and cruel number among the 1.8 million severely malnourished Yemeni children in what remains the largest humanitarian crisis going, already one of the 14 million estimated to be at risk of starvation there at that moment. But soon after she instead and inevitably dropped into another statistical column. On 1 November, 2018, in a refugee camp only four miles from hospital aid, her existence gave way to famine.

“My heart is broken,” said her mother, Mariam Ali. “Amal was always smiling. Now I’m worried for my other children.”

Slaughtered for no other reason than she was Yemini, before she was old enough to know that she was Yemeni, she had become one more of the 50,000 children that year taken by hunger and preventable disease.

Amal Hussain’s corpse had only begun to rot in the desert ground when three days later Manchester City lit it up against Southampton, winning 6-1 in the midst of their 15-game unbeaten start to that Premier League that helped them capture one more piece of silverware in brilliant fashion.

Both however were part of Abu Dhabi’s global game.

Have a guess which of those events garnered more attention though?

Business is grimy. Sport is business. Football is sport.

We get it. You know it.

Yet for all the concern over the money involved when a new European Super League poked its head above the parapet, where the money already in the game emanates from is far more troubling.

While there are all sorts of tenuous links to blood-soaked cash in this sphere that call for questions to be asked and perhaps action to be taken, this is as direct as it gets. That’s what makes it so remarkable. When it comes to City, the boardroom and the war room are so close to one another. The abuses they’ve committed are all out there in the open too, to the point that absolutely none of this is in anyway speculative.

Still there are plenty who bafflingly try and deflect from reality, when this is so different.

“You’ve an agenda against Manchester City,” they’ll say.

“Of course, don’t you?” is the reply.

“But I’ve always followed them,” they’ll say.

“Not this version, and past allegiance in sport doesn’t cover present atrocities,” is the reply.

Granted, fans being fans really isn’t where much attention is needed.

It’s been 13 years since the regime arrived and it has taken £2.5 billion worth of oil money to turn them into the best in England and taken them to the cusp of the best in Europe and by extension the world. Initially the wonder was for what purpose, and since then the actual attendance of those backing them suggests it isn’t about football.

One person contrasts rather than compares with Qatari investment in Paris Saint-Germain and how it could be pulled simply because they aren’t winning as much as they’d like. However this is far more sophisticated, and while part of it is the sports washing of a nation’s crimes, it’s also a link into political and business openings and opportunities.

“Britain’s dependence on oil money from that part of the world is often overstated,” says this well-placed person. “It’s not as important as some make it out to be, but crucially it’s important to certain key people within the establishment.

“That’s what matters.”

Isn’t it always.

After early turbulence, Sheikh Mansour, the minister of presidential affairs and a member of the royal family of Abu Dhabi was named City owner and maintains that title today. Only neither the club nor anything else in the Emirati operates in such a straightforward manner.

Forget his worth somewhere around £17bn, and forget that there’s a video of his brother Sheikh Issa bin Zayed Al Nahyan using a cattle prod on a former business partner who is being held down by police officers in the desert before beating him with a board with a nail sticking from it, pouring salt in the wounds, electrocuting him and then setting him on fire. These guys come down the chain as everything big in Abu Dhabi comes from on high.

As one source close to this explains, “Mansour is down as owner, but he doesn’t have anything to do with anything in the bigger picture. It doesn’t matter if that’s Manchester City or government policy. The dictator and crown prince is Mohammed bin Zayed, he’s the guy that runs everything. At City, Khaldoon Al Mubarak is the chairman there too and he is Mohammed bin Zayed’s consigliere, his most trusted advisor. Also, a non-executive director at the club is Simon Pearce. He is there PR man for everything. Football, war, the lot.”

If you want to get a sense of how close what has happened in Yemen is to what’s happening at the top of both the Premier League and now Champions League, then consider this. Across 2016, a series of leaked emails showed a conversation between Donald Trump’s soon-to-be US secretary of defence Jim ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis, Mike Hindmarsh (the retired Australian general who was said to be heavily involved in directing UAE military strategy there), Richard Mintz (managing director of The Harbour Group, a public relations company in Washington), and of course Pearce himself.

During the conversation they were looking to control media and pump propaganda around their military actions.

A sample, and while not headline grabbing, it does feed into a more important theme.

21 March, 2016. From Simon Pearce.
“Just to add Mike, we are working hard to get a group of journalists in to see Salem and the realities of the achievements.”

1 May, 2016. From Simon Pearce.
“Hi Mike, Rich is currently en route to Abu Dhabi and will arrive tonight. Ready to commence the information gathering exercise tomorrow. I will get on a plane on Monday night and be in Abu Dhabi at 0500 Tuesday. We are both planning on being in Abu Dhabi until Wednesday night and can obviously extend if necessary. Attached is what we hope is a helpful memo outlining the information that we are seeking in order to get the communications programme under way.”

4 October, 2016. From Richard Mintz.
“Simon spoke to Mike and he is open to a briefing while he is in DC. If it happens I think the briefing should focus on the UAE anti-AQ [Al-Qaeda] efforts and not the larger Yemen campaign. Mike should be ready for KSA [Saudi Arabia] ops/civilian casualties questions but should defer to KSA and have you answer any q’s on larger diplomatic/political issues.”

4 October, 2016. From Simon Pearce.
“Mike has no problem with whatever we want to do as long as we are confident of it and it fits with his schedule. May need you in Washington to take care of it.”

Indeed by later that month, they’d brought none other than Al Mubarak, City’s very own chairman, into the fold as well, pushing their counter-intelligence about Iran supplying weapons to the Houthis. No one is defending that side either by the way but pointing fingers doesn’t work in a war when what’s in between sides is a massacre of innocents. And do we really want to celebrate when these are the people funding football glory? All in all, it was the controlled marketing of butchery before they got back to the sort of stuff we will tune into for entertainment this weekend.

“Khaldoon and Pearce are both involved in policy decisions on Yemen, there’s no doubt,” says one individual, whose time in Abu Dhabi means they ask for anonymity as deportation is best case, what with Bin Zayed known to use state security against those who step out of line.

And yet people who work the beat around the Premier League know Pearce well.

They see him at the City of Manchester Stadium, have spoken to him often, and one senior football writer there describes him as the “image cleanser and a general public relations fire fighter”.

But if Premier League to aiding in the cover up or at least sanitisation of mass murder seems quite a double life to lead, then you simply don’t understand those that run Manchester City.

Goals in Yemen and goals in the Etihad and beyond.

They are both merely a matter of business.

Remember that as you watch on Saturday, no matter how much glitz and glamour around sporting savvy you’re fed.

Amal Hussain never had a chance.

Born in 2010, she was just five when civil war began in Yemen and, worse, next door in Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed saw an opening. For an eternity that followed, while Saudi Arabia were getting the brunt of the blame for what happened, it was actually the UAE via Abu Dhabi that were the most brutal.

In the summer of 2018, across the crumbling capital of Aden where Abu Dhabi had made promises to make it like they’d made their own seductive little corner of the world, billboards of Mohammed bin Zayed went up. There may have been a realisation that his word was a lie, but by then he inspired fear in many.

Turns out experts say his end game in all of it was to crush political Islam, get hold of the Red Sea coast and all the shipping value it holds while gaining better access to their own military bases already on the other side of the Horn of Africa, and improving their special forces’ ability to train local militias oversees who will do their will.

A report from Human Rights Watch from August 2018 reads as follows.

It all sounds familiar.

“Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum is the UAE’s Minister of Defense, but real power lies with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE armed forces. He is the UAE’s de facto leader… Mohammed bin Zayed has met with Yemeni forces and coalition commanders to discuss developments in Yemen throughout the conflict, including: receiving and pledging continued UAE support to President Hadi in March 2015 after dozens of Emirati soldiers were killed in Yemen, receiving tribal leaders from Marib in Abu Dhabi in 2015, meeting with leaders of Aden forces in 2015, congratulating the Emirati soldiers heading to Yemen in 2015, and meeting Prince Fahd, then-Commander of the Joint Special Operations for Operation Restoring Hope, to discuss developments in Yemen in April 2017…”

In other words his hands are stained red.

Just look a little at what he and those under his orders are responsible for.

It was only last year when the latest United Nations report admitted that they were looking closely at the conflict and specifically at potential “fresh” war crimes committed by the coalition. This after a previous report said crimes ranged from blowing up civilians, to torturing those they detained, to using rape as a method of gaining information and creating fear, to using child soldiers that were as young as eight but at least were guaranteed food. “There is little evidence of any attempt by parties to the conflict to minimize civilian casualties,” Kamel Jendoubi, the chairman of the expert panel behind UN reports on potential war crimes there has said.

But wheels of justice turn slowly and much of this information had been in the public domain yet it was allowed to continue on. As early as June 2017, Human Rights Watch and Associated Press revealed details of a network of at least 18 secret prisons run by the UAE, and they were still standing long after, when detainees were forced to go on hunger strike due to treatment that included cavity searches and “the use of sexual assault to brutalise and break inmates”.

Amnesty also spoke of “the existence of a network of secret prisons operated by the UAE and its proxy forces, who are accused of disappearing and torturing al-Islah members, anti-Houthi fighters from rival factions, and even activists and critics of the Saudi-UAE coalition. Yemeni ministers have taken to referring to the Emiratis as an ‘occupation force'”.

It’s just one in a long list of crimes that ought to be held up against those backing City no matter what success they buy.

For on it goes.

False statements about compliances with the laws of war, with the UN stating these laws may have been discarded; broken promises to try and limit civilian harm; halting of impartial investigations.

As Human Rights Watch added in a report into such war crimes: “Saudi and Emirati commanders, whose countries play key roles in coalition military operations, face possible legal liability as a matter of command responsibility – when a commander knows or should have known that subordinates were committing abuses yet took insufficient action to stop them or punish those responsible. Many senior officials in the Saudi and Emirati militaries, who have played a leading role in coalition operations throughout the conflict, remain in positions of power and authority.” They also suggested the UN freeze the assets of Mohammed bin Zayed, for his direct role in it.

None of that has happened though, instead the tales have continued to seep out. From specifics like Ayman Askar, a former Al-Qaeda member who was befriended by Emirati officers, being wined and dined in Abu Dhabi and sent back as one of the more powerful warlords in Yemen. To the more general evil around the death squads paid by Emirati money, handed over in plastic bags on the front line.

As the Guardian noted of them, “All parties have been detaining suspects without trial, and torturing prisoners. But no one can compete with the detentions, torture and forced disappearances by the Emirati-sponsored troops. An unprecedented campaign of terror followed the formation of these forces in 2016. At night men with balaclavas seized people from their beds. No one claims responsibility for these kidnappings. Although the action was launched ostensibly to fight al-Qaeda, the targets expanded to include anyone who dared to oppose the UAE presence in Yemen.” Amnesty added to this stating the UAE was diverting arms supplied by western countries to those ‘friendly’ militias accused of war crimes. “Yemen is quickly becoming a safe haven for UAE-backed militias that are largely unaccountable,” said Patrick Wilcken, their Arms Control and Human Rights Researcher.

So how many Amal Hussains have there been since her body had to be put into the ground?

How many more will they be?

In fact amidst all the positive attention, analysis and excitement Abu Dhabi’s efforts and wants have created in European football, it emerged this week too that similar efforts in Yemen have left 50,000 people in famine-like conditions, five million more are in immediate danger, and a child dying every 10 minutes of preventable diseases.

It’s just business though, part of a bigger picture and dominance, just like this European final.

Once their ilk would end up in the Hague. These days they end up placed on sport’s biggest podiums instead.

Champions of England again. Perhaps champions of Europe at last.

If this is what victory is, it gives new meaning to winning ugly.

25 May, 2021

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