Armed forces from 20 countries gathered in northern Saudi Arabia on Sunday for the start of "the most important" military exercise ever staged in the Middle East, according to the Saudi state news agency SPA.
The exercise, dubbed "Thunder of the North,| features some 350,000 forces from Persian Gulf Arab states and allies such as Chad, Egypt, Jordan, Sudan and Pakistan, said SPA.
The drill will feature demonstrations from ground, air, and naval forces with the intent of sending a "clear message" that Riyadh and its allies "stand united in confronting all challenges and preserving peace and stability in the region," according to the country's new agency.
Over 2,540 warplanes, 20,000 tanks and 460 helicopters will participate in the 18 day long exercise.
Brigadier Ahmad Asiri, spokesperson for the Saudi-led coalition bombing Yemen, said the exercise seeks to better the military prowess of all the nations partaking in the drill.
"It will serve to boost fighting capabilities, exchange information, benefit from experiences and expertise and enhance coordination between the participating countries," he said.
The exercise has been well received by numerous Arab state ambassadors to the Saudi kingdom. Jamal Al Shamayla, Jordan's ambassador to Riyadh, said last week that the exercise “is one of his numerous initiatives to preserve security and stability in the region.”
Saudi Arabia’s military is currently engaged in a number of operations across the region. The oil-rich nation is leading an assault on anti-government Houthi rebels in its southern neighbor Yemen, where it has been joined by allies Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, among others.
Earlier this month it sent warplanes to a Turkish air base in order to "intensify" its operations against the Islamic State group in Syria. The kingdom’s military also recently said it would be willing to engage in a ground battle with militants from the terror group, which prompted an angry response from Damascus.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said any ground troops who would “attack or violate” Syria’s sovereignty would return to their countries in a “wooden coffin.”
A Saudi source told AFP on Thursday that members of its "anti-terrorism" coalition, formed in December, will gather in Saudi Arabia next month for its first publicly announced meeting.
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