Northern Thunder: Saudi Arabia as a military superpower

EPA/AMEL PAIN

A file photo dated 01 November 2011 showing Saudi Arabia's Armed Forces presenting their skills during a military parade held few days before the Muslim's Hajj Pilgrimage 2011, near Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Press Agency (SPA) on 15 February 2016 reported Saudi Arabia has started the region's largest military exercise as part of a drill that involves troops from other Muslim and Arab countries. Among the 20 countries participating in the exercise are Pakistan, Egypt and Jordania. Saudi Arabia, a staunch critic of al-Assad, has confirmed sending fighter jets used by the US and allied powers to attack Islamic State militants to the Incirlik airbase in southern Turkey. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said 14 February 2016 in Riyadh that any decision by his country to deploy ground troops in Syria would be linked to the US-led coalition fighting Islamic State there.

Riyadh is looking to display willingness and capability to affect the status quo militarily


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Saudi as a regional security leader

The Northern Thunder military exercise that began on Monday is a show of power designed to pass the message that Saudi Arabia is a regional security provider, leading a Sunni coalition against Daesch. This is the largest indigenous army the region has ever seen. How many troops will participate depends on whom you read: 150-350,000 troops could be engaged.

The gathering of one of the largest Muslim force in history is a significant message for Daesch, but others may interpret the message differently. The Sunni common denominator of all the powers invited to participate could also be seen as a message to Assad, to Iran, and, finally, to Russia.

Saudi leadership is also a message in-itself. This multinational force is officially coordinating its efforts with the United States and, therefore, has a clear political trajectory that may be seen as predictable, or at least not threatening to the West. But, it is clear that diplomatic discourse changes when someone has the power to physically affect the status quo.

The substance of the drill

On Sunday, troops from the Saudi Arabia, Oman, Egypt, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates,  Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Jordan, Senegal, Sudan, Maldives, Morocco, Pakistan, Chad, Tunisia, the Comoro Islands, Djibouti, Malaysia, Egypt, Mauritania, and Mauritius gathered for a military drill to last until March 10.

The drill involves 20 countries, amongst whom, Egypt and Pakistan, both of whom have sizable and equipped armies. Egypt has the largest army in Africa; Pakistan is a nuclear power.

Military substance

The military substance of the drill is inter-operability, in a fighting force with a wide range of military equipment in anyting from fighter jets and tanks, to air defense systems and naval forces. Of those states engaged, only the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members – Saudi, UAE, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait – have developed interoperability in the so-called Peninsula Shield fighting force. This is an operation much greater in scale.

Strategic messaging

The political and strategic substance of the drill is the show of an army with 350,000 strong troops, 2,500 warplanes, 20,000 tanks and 450 helicopters, under Saudi leadership. The 20-member coalition makes part of a broader 35-member Arab and Muslim (Sunni) coalition put together by Saudi Arabia. If this force ends up deploying ground forces in Syria, what will happen when they encounter Iran-backed forces, such as Hezbollah or the Syrian Army.

Upon a Sunni common denominator, many will read other subtexts, including Arab nationalism. Speaking to “Gulf News” Quatari officials deny the exercise is meant as a warning towards Iran or Russia, but that may be the “collateral effect.” What would happen if one of these Sunni coalition planes shot down a Russian jet fighter; due to the Turkish precedent, that is a fair question.

Saudi jet-fighters are already in Turkey. There is an Iran-Saudi encounter in Yemen, although mostly by proxy. Last week, General Ahmed Asseri of the Saudi military confirmed last week that ground troops stand by to be sent to Syria.

Questions to address

With the Sunni coalition ready to deploy in Syria, the imminent short term question is “how will Iran respond”; if in kind, then this is the beginning of a regional standoff that will have too many variables to be predictable.

In the medium term is who will lead the campaign against the ISIS and Assad. Turkey is not “an supplement” to the military coalition led by Saudi. But, the size of the Saudi led coalition and the willingness to deploy ground troops, could mean that the future course of action may be decided in Riyadh, as much as in Brussels, Washington or Moscow, which is unprecedented.

(Saudi Press Agency, Gulf News, Al Arabiya, National Interest, International Business Times)

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