Jeremy Binnie, London – IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly
Exercise ‘Raad al-Shamal’ (North Thunder), which began in northern Saudi Arabia on 14 February, has been billed as the largest exercise ever held in the Middle East. Some press reports have claimed that 350,000 soldiers have gathered in the north of the kingdom, prompting speculation the manoeuvres are covering a Saudi-led military intervention in Syria.
The exercise’s official Dira al-Watan (Nation Shield) media channel has not stated how many personnel are involved, but judging by its media releases, the exercise is a modest affair compared to ‘Bright Star 2000’, which was held in Egypt in 1999 and involved around 73,000 troops from 11 countries.
Dira al-Watan has caveated the claim that ‘Raad al-Shamal’ is the largest ever exercise in the Middle East, saying it is “the largest military exercise in terms of participating countries and its military equipment”. It says 20 countries are involved (including Saudi Arabia), slightly fewer than the 22 claimed for ‘Eager Lion 14’ held in Jordan in May-June 2014.
At the time of writing, military personnel from nine of the countries said to be participating (Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Maldives, Mauritania, Mauritius, Morocco, Senegal, and Tunisia) had yet to be seen in the videos and photographs released by Dira al-Watan.
Another four countries (Malaysia, Oman, Pakistan, and Sudan) appear to have sent infantry units, including airborne and special forces, while the remaining six non-Saudi participants have sent armoured/mechanised units.
Qatar has been the only one to announce the size of its involvement. The Qatar News Agency (QNA) reported on 15 February that the emirate was sending a mechanised battalion to King Khalid Military City in northern Saudi Arabia for the exercise. Dira al-Watan released a video on 17 February showing Qatari VAB armoured personnel carriers (APCs) arriving at the base and soldiers disembarking a Qatari C-17 transport aircraft.