HAFR AL-BATIN, Saudi Arabia: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry landed Friday at a sprawling military facility in northeastern Saudi Arabia where the kingdom just finished a three-week-long counter-terrorism drill that included 20 nations and which observers say was a show of force against its foes.
Kerry touched down at the King Khalid Military City near the town of Hafr al-Batin in the desert, south of the Iraqi and Kuwaiti border. He was later in the evening received by King Salman and other top Saudi officals, which was to be followed by a working dinner with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef and Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir.
His visit came as the kings of Bahrain and Jordan joined Pakistan’s prime minister, Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, Qatar’s emir and the Saudi king for a parade and airshow marking the end of the military exercise, dubbed “Northern Thunder.” The drill focused on how to coordinate combat operations and guerrilla warfare tactics among the Muslim-majority countries that are members of a larger counter-terrorism alliance announced by the kingdom in December.
It also comes amid heightened tensions between Saudi Arabia and its regional Shiite rival Iran as they back opposite sides of the wars in Syria and Yemen. On Thursday, state media reported that Saudi Arabia was building a new air base to protect the kingdom’s airspace in Hafr al-Batin.
The drills included troops from Egypt, Pakistan, Turkey, Malaysia, Jordan, Sudan and the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council. Other countries that contributed include Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Maldives, Mauritania, Morocco, Senegal, and Tunisia.
Kerry’s talks focused on the civil wars in Syria and Yemen, where a Saudi-led campaign has been targeting the country’s Iran-backed Shiite rebels. A senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the official wasn’t authorized to speak publicly, said Kerry emphasized that now is the time to keep moving forward on ending the conflicts in Syria and Yemen.
Kerry also noted the recent cessation of hostilities in Syria and reduction of violence there and looks forward to building on that progress as U.N.-led peace talks resume within days in Geneva, the official said.
From the kingdom, Kerry will head to Paris for talks on Sunday with Europe’s top diplomats about Libya, Syria, Yemen and Ukraine. The meeting is also an opportunity for him to meet with France’s new foreign minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault. They’ll be joined by the foreign ministers of Britain, Germany, Italy and the EU foreign policy chief.
Kerry is also expected to discuss the migrant crisis facing Europe.
There have also been increasing European concern about the expansion of the Islamic State group — which holds about a third of Iraq and Syria — in Libya amid the North African country’s political chaos. EU diplomats are discussing possible sanctions against Libyans seen as obstructing the peace process.
Additionally, European officials are upset about President Barack Obama’s criticism of European policy in Libya after the 2011 NATO-led campaign that ousted Moammar Gadhafi.