Saudi Arabia just launched what it describes as the largest war game in the country’s history.
On February 14th, the “Northern Thunder” military exercise began, involving troops from 20 countries.
Saudi Arabia’s state news describes Northern Thunder as “the largest military exercise of its kind in terms of the number of participating countries and qualitative military equipment.”
David Weinberg, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, told Business Insider that Riyadh’s claims shouldn’t be taken at face value — and that the exercise might not have a specific political objective either.
“Even year in recent years the Saudis announce some sort of ‘biggest’ military exercise, and people always try to find a message,” Weinberg says, noting that Northern Thunder includes participants like Egypt, Pakistan and Oman “which have balked at recent Saudi military requests.”
Still, the exercise comes at a time when Riyadh is badly in need of effective hard power projection.
Saudi Arabia is in an ambiguous geopolitical position, losing on a number of important fronts while gaining in military power and regional importance.
In Syria, Russian and Iranian support has enabled crucial battlefield gains for the the regime of Bashar al-Assad — advances that have come at the expense of Saudi-supported rebel groups.
The Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, which is fighting to restore the country’s internationally recognised government after Iranian-backed Houthi rebels deposed it in early 2015, has made little progress in recent months and is widely thought of as a strategic misstep.
The recent agreement between Saudi Arabia, Russia, Qatar and Venezuela to cap oil production could lead to an OPEC production level freeze that would hurt Iran, restraining the Saudi rival’s output just as international sanctions against the country are lifted.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia’s primary regional opponent still plans on spending a reported $8 billion on Russian arms and is seeing its global standing improve after the January implementation of its nuclear deal with a US-led group of world powers.
Saudi Arabia is facing internal pressures as well.
Low oil prices are forcing Riyadh to cut social services and impose unprecedented taxation measures, while the government plans on raising money through privatizing some of Saudi Aramco, the country’s multi-trillion-dollar state oil concern.
Despite these challenges, Saudi Arabia is arguably the most powerful of the Arab states, thanks in part to its low break-even price for oil production and the effect of ongoing conflict and dysfunction on traditional regional leaders like Syria, Egypt, and Iraq.
Riyadh has also carried out increasing military exercises in order to display the country’s firepower, Weinberg explained to Business Insider.
“The increasing tempo of major Saudi military exercises reflects the kingdom’s broader investment in military spending and operational capacity, which is first and foremost driven by the perceived conventional and unconventional threats posed by Iran.”
An exercise like Northern Thunder sends the message that Saudi Arabia intends to keep up an assertive regional policy despite its recent setbacks.