The Saudi Arabian Armed Forces conducted Operation Saif Abdullah (Sword of Abdullah) and parade at King Khalid Military City near Hafr Al-Baten, in northeast Saudi Arabia, showcasing its military might last week in a very public display of combat aircraft, armor, ballistic missiles, and about 130,000 troops. The events came on the heels of military exercises between the UAE and Egypt as well as similar activities in Bahrain.
The highly choreographed events were supervised by Saudi Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Prince Salman. Deputy Crown Prince Muqrin, Prince Mutaib, King Abdullah's son and National Guard minister, and Interior Minister Prince Muhammad bin Nayef and scores of diplomats, officials, military officers and the media were in attendance. Operation Saif Abdullah was held to commemorate the ascension to the throne of the current monarch, King Abdullah. So the event was planned well in advanced and the timing could not have been better.
The Hafr Al-Baten Military Exercise, held near the Kuwaiti and Iraqi borders, included the cream of the crop of Saudi security officials and several royal observers from the Gulf states. Saudi Chief of Staff General Hussain Al-Qubail was quoted in Arab News as saying, “By conducting this exercise, we are preparing our forces to defend our holy places and our achievements ... and we don't intend to attack anyone because it's not the Kingdom's policy.” He added, “These maneuvers are aimed at raising the training level of our forces and testing their preparedness to deter enemy attacks...the Kingdom would defend itself against any aggressors. The exercise was carried out under the directives of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah, supreme commander of the armed forces.”
Saudi Arabia's ballistic missile, the CSS-2
Importantly, the parade featured, for the first time, Saudi Arabia's ballistic missile, the CSS-2. The significance of showing the missiles at this time sends multiple messages to state actors around the world and specifically Iran as pointed out by many observers. Some Arab officials are speculating on the CONOP (Concept of Operations) for the scenario that the Saudis were running during the exercise with a large conventional force: Egypt, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq seemed to lead the pact of potential candidates in times of crisis particularly with one state just completing its parliamentary vote, two states that have upcoming elections and another state in the midst of an outright war with al-Qaeda Arabian Peninsula. According to one Arab official, “Qatar should be taking note of these exercises and parade.”
To date, there are key implications that many analysts are pointing to: A show of force as well as sending messages to Iran and the United States that the Kingdom and allies can stand on their own defense capabilities in times of regional crisis. In addition, observers noted that the Saudi-based events featured notable signals about the Kingdom’s relationship with China and Pakistan. However, there are wide-ranging other inferences to take under consideration regarding the future of Gulf security architecture.
First are the messages being sent to the UK. The UK is currently playing an interesting game with Qatar much to the chagrin of the Kingdom. Importantly, Qatar is now Britain's biggest source of liquefied natural gas. Emir Tamim is quietly reported to be in London launching a new television network, Al-Arabi or Al-Arabi Al-Jadid, seemingly an alternative to al-Jazeera, a network that is the darling of the Father Emir. At the same time, the Emir is potentially meeting with other British officials about what to do with the Muslim Brotherhood’s (Ikwan) activities given Saudi demands that the UK look into the Ikwan’s network emanating from UK soil. The UK’s “East of Suez” policy is coming into play now. We must recall that the East of Suez policy is for a return of the British to the Gulf in order to protect vital interests especially the protection of over 160,000 British expats in the GCC. Clearly, the Saudi are miffed at London and are expecting clear answers from 10 Downing Street about what comes next. Yet, London is also frustrated because of recent arms sales gone bad and an increase in French outreach to the Gulf states.
A signal to European states
Second, the events of last week are a signal to France. Paris is slated to become more dominant in the Gulf despite the British East of Suez policy coupled with U.S. recalculations. France’s strategic policy is evolving into becoming a guardian for Francophile Africa, MENA, and the Gulf. Specifically, Paris is rapidly escalating its bilateral relationships to many GCC states with monthly unannounced visits of senior defense officials up to French Minister of Defense Jean-Yves Le Drian. The French are actively pursuing defense sales and future supplier contracts with many GCC states. Saudi Arabia, with its activities last week, is showing France that the door is open to Paris but at the same that door can shut depending on French behavior towards negotiations with Iran.
Third, we all know that the Saudi exercises and parade pointed towards the pending deal between the P5+1 and Iran which is likely to conclude sooner rather than later. The Kingdom is clearly upset and despite U.S. President Obama’s visit to Riyadh last month, the feeling of abandonment continues. American officials are visiting the region less and if they do, there is little time on the ground. It seems that the U.S. wants their European allies to take the lead. As such, once this agreement is signed with Iran, Gulf security architecture will change. Britain and France will become more dominant with the US giving equal or greater responsibility to the two states as Washington readjusts its presence in the Gulf as America’s attention is pulled to the north towards Ukraine and Russia. In the near future, it is likely that Britain and France will also be working more closely with Iran at the expense of Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia based on the current trajectory.
Overall, Saudi Arabia's showing of force came at an important time in terms of regional security developments. The Kingdom's choice to flash their missile, equipment, and manpower in front of world eyes signals a defining moment for Riyadh and the Kingdom’s relationships with key Western powers and the future Gulf security architecture.
Dr. Theodore Karasik is the Director of Research and Consultancy at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) in Dubai, UAE. He is also a Lecturer at University of Wollongong Dubai. Dr. Karasik received his Ph.D in History from the University of California Los Angles.