Interpreting ‘North Thunder’ exercise


The dust raised by the 2-day multinational military exercise hosted by Saudi Arabia in the Hafar ul Batin desert close to the Iraqi and Kuwaiti borders should have settled by now, but speculation as to its raison d’etre is likely to persist. With 20 countries participating it was a huge show of strength, and more so for the high-profile presence of foreign dignitaries.

To watch its concluding ceremony many heads of state and government and high-powered military delegations had turned up from wide across the Islamic world. Almost all top leaders of the AGCC, many African heads of state and their military commanders were present to watch the two-hour long mock battle scenario which was the highpoint of the concluding ceremony.

Pakistan was represented by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Army Chief General Raheel Sharif. The exercise has been billed as ‘the largest military drill in the world in terms of the number of participating forces’. Pakistani troops were part of the demonstration.

On the eve of departure for Saudi Arabia following a meeting of the top civil-military top brass in Islamabad the message was aired that Pakistan has decided to expand its engagements with the Saudi kingdom and will offer military training to Saudi troops, provide military hardware and share intelligence. But this augmented cooperation is expected to remain confined within the borders of the kingdom and geared exclusively in defence and perseverance of its security and stability.

As to why Saudi Arabia wanted to showcase its military clout now there can be quite a few explanations: the first and foremost being the new king’s worldview which appears to be at some variance with his predecessor’s and is outward looking. Since king Salman bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud took the throne early last year Saudi Arabia has adopted a more assertive foreign policy.

Presently, it leads the Arab Coalition in the war against rebels in Yemen, participates in US-led air strikes against the Islamic State targets and has offered to send its special forces in Syria. And to some extent it has brought it success: early this week a Houthi team arrived in Riyadh and offered to resolve differences with the kingdom by securing peace in the areas adjoining the Saudi border with Yemen.

But its decision to land boots in Syria has been pre-empted not only by the impending UN-sponsored peace parleys but also by Turkey’s refusal to lockstep into Syria. The Saudi leaders insist that the military exercise in the desert is ‘distinct’ from the 34-nation coalition to fight terrorism the kingdom had announced in December. Seemingly, the new ruling elite in the kingdom is working to carve out for itself a heightened strategic role and central position not only in the Middle East but throughout the Islamic world.

One may not be very much out of place to think if the military drill in the Hafar ul Batin desert was envisaged to act as the foundation-stone of a military alliance of Muslim world on the pattern of the post-World War II North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato). It was the shared threat of westward thrusting the Moscow-led Communist Warsaw Pact that helped create justification for the birth of Nato.

Is the Saudi-headed Sunni world also confronted with such a common fright? Neither Iran nor Iraq was invited to join the Thunder of the North military manoeuvre. Brigadier Ahmed Al-Asiri, spokesman for the coalition forces at the office of Saudi defence minister, insists the drill was aimed at preparing to tackle the region’s “terrorist menace”, and not directed against Iran. “It will protect regional stability, if needed”. But the reality is that ideological-cum-political divergences across the Gulf remain, and have escalated in the wake of the Syria civil war.

On a number of regional issues the governments in Riyadh and Teheran take confrontationist positions. And the kingdom snapped diplomatic relations with Iran when its embassy and consulate in the Islamic republic were attacked by mobs infuriated over the death of a highly revered Arab Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr. Unfortunately, this Gulf-based schism is being allowed to divide the Islamic world into two camps, with a potential to divert their attention and their unified moves against the common enemies particularly the Islamic State. There is the dire need to put the Thunder in the North into its proper perspective lest it is interpreted as proof of growing disunity among the Muslim countries.

Source: Business Recorder