Drills with Bahrain highlight Egypt’s expanding regional engagement

Much like Riyadh, Cairo has been investing greater effort into military diplomacy and has extended a growing involvement in joint exercises with regional partners.
Sunday 27/01/2019
An Egyptian Army officer instructs his soldiers during military exercises. (AFP)
Building capacities. An Egyptian Army officer instructs his soldiers during military exercises. (AFP)

DUBAI - Dubbed as one of the most important exercises of the year by its military, Egypt recently concluded air and sea drills with counterparts in Bahrain. Egyptian naval and air officers travelled to Bahrain, a key ally of Cairo, to participate in the Hamad 3 military exercises alongside Bahraini troops.

The exercises at Isa Air Base in southern Bahrain included combat drills and “training in joint air and sea combat management using advanced air and naval tactics,” an Egyptian Army statement said.

The Egyptian mili­tary has been regarded as the strongest among Arab countries, frequently playing a leading role in various regional military coalitions since the 1950s. Despite its somewhat understated regional role in recent years, Cairo is increasingly employing military diplomacy and operational exchanges to reassert regional leadership.

The emerging strategic environment and deepening alignment between Cairo and Riyadh, which are the two heavyweights leading the regional Arab bloc, generated new expectations and responsibilities for Egypt.

The Hamad 3 drills follow the Red Wave 1 exercises in December in Saudi Arabia, which brought the Egyptian Navy together with Saudi, Jordanian, Sudanese, Djiboutian, Yemeni and Mauritanian navies. Riyadh is aiming to support more frequent military engagements with regional partners as a way of enhancing understanding as well as developing capacities and expertise.

The Red Wave 1 exercises were against the backdrop of Riyadh spearheading efforts at creating a bloc of Red Sea countries with a cooperative framework focused on security and

economic integration.

Much like Riyadh, Cairo has been investing greater effort into military diplomacy and has extended a growing involvement in joint exercises with regional partners to deepen cooperation.

In December, the Egyptian military, for the first time, initiated joint counterterrorism exercises with African counterparts from the Community of Sahel-Saharan States at the Mohamed Naguib military base west of Alexandria.

Having battled a low-intensity insurgency in the Sinai since 2011, Cairo has stepped up efforts to build capacities at home and increasingly with regional partners given the transnational nature of non-state threats. The security environment in the Middle East emphasises cooperation and collective action in effectively countering complex threats.

From the Sahel to Libya and the Sinai as well as low-level insurgencies in the Horn of Africa, Egypt must be wary of managing instability around its periphery and help build partnerships that can function as bulwarks to terrorist and insurgent threats.

By sharing its experiences in counterterrorism operations, tactics, techniques and procedures and by applying lessons learnt from its campaign in the Sinai, Egypt has reinforced its role as a mentor to regional partners.

Last year, Egypt sent a military contingent to Jordan for the Aqaba 4 exercises that were aimed at practising drills against mutual threats with a focus on terrorist and asymmetric threats, such as the rapid deployment of special forces around critical national infrastructure and sensitive sites in urban environments. Jordan, which has also confronted terrorist threats, recently resumed imports of Egyptian gas after militant attacks on pipelines halted supplies after 2011.

Egypt’s most significant recent wargames took place in November when it hosted counterparts from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Jordan — with Morocco and Lebanon participating as observers — for Arab Shield 1, a 16-day exercise. Participants from the Arab Gulf and Jordanian contingents included air, ground, naval and special forces, reflecting the broad spectrum of drills and joint manoeuvres that were undertaken.

In October, Egyptian and Saudi land forces conducted the Tabuk 4 military drills in southern Egypt and, in August, Egypt participated extensively in Eagle Response 2018, which included the US, Saudi and Emirati navies.

Exercises the Egyptian armed forces have been involved in recently included drills for close-in air support, precision air raids, targeting hideouts, neutralising improvised explosives devices and undertaking manoeuvres to protect civilians, secure sensitive sites and critical national infrastructure. On the naval side, Cairo has exercised with partners to secure sea lanes of communication and ensure freedom of navigation for commercial shipping, including against the threat of mines and asymmetric attacks.

These recent examples suggest Egypt, together with Saudi Arabia, is stepping up its military engagement with key security partners and taking a leading role in strengthening emerging alliances.

There is particular significance attached to such efforts that have become more frequent and larger in scale and scope considering the prospect of an “Arab NATO” on the horizon. Lessons from recent exercises would feed planning towards the goals such an alliance would aim to achieve in the future.