HAFAR UL BATIN (Saudi Arabia): Warplanes roared overhead, tanks rumbled across the desert and smoke filled the sky on Thursday for the final day of what Saudi Arabia billed as the region’s biggest-ever military exercises.
The 12-day ‘Northern Thunder’ manoeuvres in the kingdom’s northeast included 20 nations from the Middle East, Africa and Asia, Saudi officials said.
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdul Aziz was joined by several foreign leaders for the final day of the exercise, which came as Riyadh vies to assert its leadership in the region.
Among them were Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir and Yemen’s Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi.
As the dignitaries watched from a pavilion, Apache gunships fired rockets with a bone-shaking blast. Smoke rose from targets on the ground and commandos rappelled from helicopters.
Fighter jets streaked through the sky releasing orange flares, artillery shells whistled through the air and heavy machinegun fire boomed from across the drill site, which stretched for dozens of kilometres.
The exercises took place near Hafar Ul Batin city, close to the Kuwaiti and Iraq borders.
Saudi Arabia’s chief of staff, Gen Abdulrahman al-Bunyan, commanded the exercise and called it “the largest Arab and Islamic military gathering” in the region.
Riyadh has adopted a more assertive foreign policy since King Salman took the throne early last year following the death of King Abdullah.
It leads a coalition fighting rebels in Yemen, participates in US-led air strikes against the militant Islamic State (IS) group and has offered to send special forces to fight IS in Syria.
Saudi Brig Gen Ahmed al-Assiri told reporters this week the manoeuvres were distinct from a 35-nation coalition to fight terrorism which Saudi Arabia announced in December.
An AFP reporter saw Pakistani, Egyptian, Kuwaiti and Sudanese troops alongside Saudis.
According to a statement from the PM House in Islamabad, Chief of Army Staff Gen Raheel Sharif and Special Assistant to Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs Tariq Fatemi also attended the ceremony.
The event included different activities, mainly air drops, armour movement and air assault through helicopters.
The exercise commenced on Feb 14 this year the King Khalid Military City in North Eastern Saudi Arabia, with the participation of various military disciplines of artillery, tanks, infantry, and air defence systems as well as naval forces of 21 countries. Military exercises involving all these brotherly countries focused on training forces on how to deal with terrorist groups, the statement said.
Published in Dawn, March 11th, 2016