"The significance of Hafr al Batin lay in the fact that as a convergence point between the three countries, it was a natural route to both Kuwait and Iraq. The area is some 90 km from Kuwait and 70 km from Iraq. The Gulf waterway is nearby."
By Gulshan Luthra

Dubai, May 2 - Saudi Arabia, one of the world's largest arms importers, has held its biggest military exercise over two weeks in three theaters across the country reportedly involving some 100,000 personnel from its army, navy and air force.

Details were sketchy as usual from the rather secretive kingdom but officially published reports said that the exercise, codenamed Saif Abdullah -, was meant to test the capability of the Saudi Arabian forces in both offensive and defensive roles, and that on its concluding day on April 29, rulers, royalty and top military commanders from the neighbouring Gulf states attended the final parts of the show as well as the ceremonial retreat at Hafr al Batin in the country's northeast.

Militarily, Saudi Arabia is among the best-equipped countries in the world, building, maintaining and continuously upgrading a leading edge in the region, mostly with US, British, German, French and Italian weapons. Western sources told India Strategic defence magazine - that the exercise involved Boeing-supplied F-15 Eagle and AWACS aircraft as well as Apache helicopters, British Aerospace's Tornado aircraft, Raytheon's missile and air defence systems and a host of formidable equipment.

Saudi Arabia holds the exercise every year but the dimension and scale of deployment this time was unparalleled, as the kingdom officially let it be known albeit without divulging details.

Saudi Arabia began its military buildup from the 1970s but accelerated it in the 1980s following the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, which also threatened to export it to destabilize its Arab Gulf neighbours.

In May 1981, Saudi Arabia, and its five neighbours - the UAE, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait - also formed the regional economic and security Gulf Cooperation Council - grouping which declared that an attack on any of them would be considered an attack on all of them and be tackled jointly.

In fact, all the Gulf countries, particularly the UAE and Saudi Arabia, have wisely used their military acquisition programmes to leverage investments as offsets to build their domestic industry from scratch. In this perspective, the UAE has particularly made impressive strides in oil, aerospace and defence technologies.

The GCC grouping has, meanwhile, held strong, except that in March this year, the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar alleging the latter's interference in their internal affairs. Issues include Qatar's support to Egyptian dissidents and rather loud news reports by the Doha-based Al Jazeera Arabic and English TV channels. Qatar has not reciprocated but its envoys in the three countries are not obliged with official diplomatic opportunities.

Understandably, the ruling family or military officials from Qatar, which shares a border with Saudi Arabia, were not invited.

According to UAE's state-run WAM news agency, those at the concluding ceremony included the UAE's General Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the UAE armed forces; Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, crown prince, deputy prime minister and defence minister of Saudi Arabia; King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain; Sheikh Khalid Al-Jarrah Al-Sabah, deputy prime minister and defence minister of Kuwait; Field Marshal Shaikh Khalifa bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, commander-in-chief of the Bahrain Defence Force -; and Mohammed bin Nasser Al-Rasebi, secretary general of Oman's defence ministry.

Pakistan's army chief, General Raheel Sharif ,also attended, and according to Pakistani media, took the opportunity to offer the JF-17 Thunder aircraft that Pakistan produces jointly with China.

Hafr al Batin is located near Saudi Arabia's borders with Kuwait and Iraq at the head of the strategic Gulf waterway in east. The area hosts the King Khalid Military City.

According to reports in the Saudi media, the exercise was held both on the country's eastern Gulf coast and the western Red Sea coast. Saudi Arabia has some tension with Yemen and a chunk of the exercise deployment was on that border in the southwest.

UAE's WAM news agency said that the exercise was staged in three theatres of operations to strengthen Saudi armed forces' combat capability in both offensive ad defensive roles while another report said that electronic warfare - units were also used extensively.

In the US-allied war against Iraq in Feb 1991, in Operation Desert Strom, US forces created deception cells at Hafr al Batin and generated false but intense VHF traffic to mislead the Iraqis to believe that the main attack units were based there. Movement of bogus military convoys, bunkers and dust were created while the main armour and infantry units attacked Iraqi forces in Kuwait from another route to penetrate the Iraqi defences. Ariel and naval bombing from the Gulf waterway pulverized Iraqi forces in their own country.

The significance of Hafr al Batin lay in the fact that as a convergence point between the three countries, it was a natural route to both Kuwait and Iraq. The area is some 90 km from Kuwait and 70 km from Iraq. The Gulf waterway is nearby.

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