KING KHALID MILITARY CITY // Warplanes roared overhead, tanks rumbled across the desert and smoke filled the sky on Thursday during the final stage of what Saudi Arabia said were the region’s biggest ever military exercises.
Nearly 350,000 ground troops from 20 nations in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, including the UAE, took part in the last day of the so-called “Northern Thunder” manoeuvres. The exercises, which took place in the desert near to the Kuwaiti and Iraq borders, began 12 days ago.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, joined Saudi Arabia’s King Salman to attend the conclusion of the manoeuvres.
Senior royals from Qatar, Bahrain and Oman were also present along with other regional leaders, including Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El Sisi, Sudanese president Omar Al Bashir and Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
Sheikh Mohammed praised the expertise of the UAE troops who participated in the air, land and sea exercises.
“This group of our armed forces enjoy the advantages of combat and military skills, and morale is very high. They are the vanguard against challenges, no matter how hard, which have increased the threat to peace and to regional and international security.”
He also praised the skills of the other armies taking part, and expressed his confidence that all involved would achieve military superiority.
“One victory is not enough to defeat and root out terrorism because it would be temporary, whereas superiority lasts forever and that is what we plan to do as leaders in the UAE, to achieve superiority on many levels and in all fields of military, developmental, humanitarian, political and economic.”
The training focused on how to coordinate combat operations and guerrilla warfare tactics among the Muslim-majority countries that are members of a larger alliance against terrorism announced by Riyadh in December.
However, Saudi Brigadier General Ahmed Al Assiri said the manoeuvres were distinct from the 35-nation counter-terrorism alliance.
Taking place near Hafr Al Batin city in northeastern Saudi Arabia, the manoeuvres are the “most important and largest in the region’s history”, according to Saudi authorities.
A two-hour mock battle featuring fighter jets, attack helicopters and tanks was among the final exercises, which Saudi Arabia has described as a show of regional unity.
Riyadh has adopted a more assertive foreign policy since King Salman took the throne early last year following the death of his half-brother King Abdullah.
The kingdom is leading a mainly Arab coalition fighting rebels in Yemen, is taking part in US-led air strikes against ISIL and has offered to send special forces to fight the extremist group in Syria.
“Northern Thunder” is also taking place after tensions escalated between Saudi Arabia and Iran, who back opposing sides in Syria and Yemen.
Authorities have released few details of the extent of the exercises, but Brig Gen Al Assiri said they were aimed at preparing to tackle the region’s “terrorist menace” and were not directed against Iran.
The drills included troops from all six GCC countries, as well as Egypt, Pakistan, Turkey, Malaysia, Jordan, Sudan, Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Maldives, Mauritania, Morocco, Senegal, and Tunisia.
* Agence France-Presse, Wam, Associated Press