Egypt hosts unprecedented exercises for Arab militaries

If troops conducting the war games in Egypt end up being the nucleus of an Arab NATO-like force, many challenges lie ahead.
Sunday 11/11/2018
A file picture shows smoke billowing as an apache helicopter manoeuvres during Arab military exercises in Hafr al-Batin in Saudi Arabia. (AFP)
New tactics. A file picture shows smoke billowing as an apache helicopter manoeuvres during Arab military exercises in Hafr al-Batin in Saudi Arabia. (AFP)

CAIRO - Comprehensive military drills in Egypt involving troops from six Arab forces raised questions about the prospects and objectives of military cooperation among Arab countries while the region faces a great number of major security challenges.

The Arab Shield I drills were scheduled for November 3-16 at the Mohamed Naguib Military Base in Egypt’s Western Desert with militaries from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bahrain and Kuwait participating.

Naval forces from those countries met in the Mediterranean for unprecedented purely Arab exercises and fighter jets from their militaries gathered in Egyptian airbases for manoeuvres.

Military analysts said the drills, observed by representatives from Morocco and Lebanon, were designed so the participating forces could exchange expertise.

“This is particularly true given the fact that the six armies participating in the drills have diverse experiences and follow different military schools,” said Kamal Amer, the head of the National Security Committee in the Egyptian parliament and a retired major-general. “The drills expose these armies to new military tactics and knowledge.”

This is the first time Arab armies had been brought together for joint exercises with no foreign presence. The timing of the drills, however, raised questions, coming just as the United States applied new tough sanctions on Iran.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said Egypt would not hesitate to defend fellow Arab countries if their security was threatened. “The Egyptian Army will come to the defence of Gulf Arabs if they face any direct threats,” Sisi said.

The drills also occur after reports said US President Donald Trump suggested Sunni Arab nations — including Qatar — create their own NATO-like force to be prepared for possible encroachments from Tehran.

“There are indications that the states sending troops to Egypt for the drills will move ahead with Trump’s suggestion,” said retired Egyptian Army General Sameh Abu Hashima. “The states represented in the drills were also represented in the Bright Star war games.”

The biennial Bright Star games, a strong show of military cooperation between Egypt and the United States, took place in September for the first time since 2011.

However, there are practical problems to putting Trump’s suggestion into practice because of the dispute between Doha and the Arab Quartet — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

In July 2017, the quartet submitted demands for Doha to meet concerning its alleged interference in the affairs of the four countries and its suspected financing of terrorism. Qatar refused to address the demands and continued media and intelligence policies harming Arab security, the boycotting countries said.

There is also a lack of consensus between Qatar and the same countries regarding Iran.

Doha has strong relations with Tehran but the boycotting countries say they have been negatively affected by Iranian policies, especially by the country’s backing of the Shia Houthi militia in Yemen, its support for unrest in Bahrain and its destabilising role in Syria and Iraq.

The formation of a joint Arab military force was strongly advocated by Sisi, who convinced Arab leaders in 2015 to include an article on it in the final communique. A month later, the chiefs of staff of Arab armies met at the Arab League to discuss the idea. However, nothing more on the issue has evolved.

Developments on the Arab stage might be bringing the idea back on the table, analysts said.

Troops participating in the drills conduct a wide range of activities, including unconventional warfare and attacks against terrorist hideouts.

Mohamed Farid, the chief of staff of the Egyptian Army, visited the drills command centre November 6 and described the exercises as the “most important between Arab armies, in the light of common threats to Arab security.”

However, if troops conducting the war games in Egypt end up being the nucleus of an Arab NATO-like force, analysts said, many challenges lie ahead. One is the need for countries to agree on what constitutes a threat or an enemy.

“These states also need to agree on where the command centre of the aspired force will be based,” said Mukhtar Ghobashi, the deputy head of Egyptian think-tank Arab Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. “Where financing for the force will come from and which country will command it are also issues that need to be discussed.”