Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1287, (17 - 23 March 2016)
Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Issue 1287, (17 - 23 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Commentary:War by other means

What were the true objectives behind Saudi Arabia’s recently concluded North Thunder military exercises, asks Emad Awwad

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Al-Ahram Weekly

On 9 March, the king of Saudi Arabia received the leaders of the Arab and Islamic states who had come to attend the closing manoeuvres of the North Thunder military exercises, launched on 27 February.

Given the latest regional developments, it is necessary to analyse the objectives of the large-scale military drill, as well as its relationship with expected future military strikes against terrorist militias that have asserted their presence in the regional theatre over the last few years. In doing so, many questions could be raised.

Why did this unprecedented military show of force take place at this particular moment? What were its real objectives? Does a relationship exist between these exercises and the Islamic Coalition announced by the Saudi deputy crown prince and minister of defence on 15 December? How might the exercises be seen in light of the growing tensions and deteriorating relationship between the Gulf states and between Iran and its allies?

While the exercises were scheduled a long time ago, the timing, location and the participation of 20 countries make the event an important development. The large number of heads of state present at the closing manoeuvres also adds more weight to military exercises that were unprecedented in size and in the sophisticated methods used.

The fact that the exercises were held at a time of growing rivalry and tension between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries on the one hand, and the Islamic Republic of Iran and its allies, particularly the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah, on the other made Tehran suspicious.

In a recent article in the US Foreign Policy magazine, Andrew L Peek advanced the hypothesis that Saudi Arabia needed something big to happen. According to him, a major crisis with Iran could strengthen Saudi Arabia since it could derail the American-Iranian détente and force the United States back towards Saudi Arabia, with which it has a 70-year security relationship. In support of this hypothesis, Peek underlined the fact that on 4 February Riyadh told Washington that it is willing to send its own troops to fight in Syria.

Though the analysis developed by the author appears to be a good one, it would be difficult to entirely accept it. Certainly, Saudi Arabia has reservations about the Iranian nuclear deal. It has also noticed, not without bitterness, that the US has been reluctant to go further in Syria by engaging ground troops on the battlefield, which could lead to a conformation with the Russians.

But it seems difficult to accept the argument that Riyadh is looking for a major crisis with Iran. Not only has it been leading a coalition engaged in a fierce battle in Yemen for more than a year, but also the military balance of power is not in its favour, not when Saudi Arabia and the GCC member states are facing a difficult economic situation.

Against this backdrop, it is legitimate to ask whether Riyadh intended to intimidate its enemies by conducting military exercises described as the largest in the region’s history in terms of the number of participating forces, as well as the size of the area involved near the Iraqi and Kuwaiti borders.

In a press conference on 7 March, Ahmed Al-Asiri, an advisor to the Saudi defence minister, addressed this issue. He stressed the importance of the exercises to determine the readiness of the forces to guarantee the security of the participating countries, in addition to fighting terrorist militias and other elements in the region. He also pointed to what he called Iran’s “political behaviour” in the region, saying that Iran was the country that created the pro-Iranian Hizbullah group, Al-Houthi forces in Yemen, and militias in Iraq and Syria.

Two days before completion of the North Thunder exercises, Iran reacted strongly and in an unexpected way. Far from engaging in political rhetoric, its reaction was concrete: Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards launched two ballistic missiles, called the Qadar H and Qadar F, with a range of 2,000 km and capable of reaching several sites in the region, including Israel and US military bases in the Middle East.

Although the missiles were reported to have had the phrase “Israel must be wiped out” written on them, one can’t exclude the possibility that this operation might have multiple political and military messages, not only for Israel and US, but also for Saudi Arabia and its allies engaged at the time in sophisticated and impressive military exercises.

The main idea behind this action was to remind Tehran’s rivals that it will not tolerate any attack against it or its allies, particularly as Hizbullah was declared at the beginning of March by the GCC ministers of the interior to be a terrorist group. In launching the two long-range missiles, Iran demonstrated its capability to respond and hence established some kind of deterrent balance. Any eventual ground intervention in the battlefields where Iran is operating — in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon — will not be allowed.

The fact that the missiles tested had the phrase “Israel must be wiped out” written on them was to remind the countries participating in the Saudi exercises that Iran and its ally Hizbullah, though considered a terrorist militia, consider themselves to be the “only defenders” of Palestine.

At the press conference, Al-Asiri stressed the fact that the North Thunder exercises should not be confused with what was previously declared by Saudi Arabia with regard to the Islamic Coalition to fight terrorism, announced by the deputy crown prince and minister of defence on 15 December. He reminded those present of what he had said before, saying that there are three steps and a roadmap for the establishment of the Islamic Coalition, including a conference of military chiefs of staff and a defence ministers conference.

However, it is obvious that there is a relationship between the military drill and the announced coalition. Iran and its allies are excluded from both, and the vast majority of countries participating in the manoeuvres are already on the list of the coalition’s members. Furthermore, the final objectives of the exercises and those of the coalition are the same.

Mohamed bin Salman, the Saudi deputy crown prince and minister of defence, speaking at a press conference in Riyadh on 15 December, said that the coalition will “target all terrorist organisations in the Islamic world”. Comparing this with the stated objectives of the North Thunder exercises, it becomes clear that the exercises were nothing but a practical preparation for the coalition. By taking into account the sensitivities expressed by certain member states, however, Al-Asiri attempted to differentiate between them.

Regardless of the expressions and formulae employed, the North Thunder exercises in reality represent a step towards achieving common military forces capable of eradicating the terrorism that has spread throughout the region. However, attention should be given to growing external interference in regional affairs, as well as hidden and contradictory agendas.

Military preparedness should go along with an effort to establish a common political strategy aiming at establishing peace and security and avoiding disastrous confrontations in the region. There is also the challenge of the reshaping of the Middle East according to the interests of foreign powers.

Despite the fact that the situation in the region is different from that prevailing at the time of the Sykes-Picot Agreement during the First World War, great caution and vigilance are still required.


The writer is a former diplomat specialising in Middle Eastern affairs. He has taught at universities in Egypt and abroad and has published widely in Europe and the Arab world.

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