Saif Sareea 3: On the ground with Oman's unsung heroes
November 8, 2018 | 2:22 PM
by Gautam Viswanathan

Growing up, I used to love playing with toy soldiers. I still remember the first action figures I played with. They were GI Joes with cool names like Storm Shadow, Flint and Firefly. They came in little cardboard and clear plastic packages, complete with all the gear they needed to give the child in me hours of wonderful fun. While my collection of action figures grew steadily through the years, my fascination with soldiers grew as well, expanding from GI Joes to Sergeant Hawk and then to Commander Shepard and his loyal comrades from the Mass Effect series. Having tremendous respect for the men and women who do not think twice before answering the call of their country I felt truly honoured, to see for myself how soldiers lived on the front lines, on behalf of Times of Oman to cover Exercise Saif Sareea 3.

A joint exercise between Oman and the United Kingdom, Exercise Saif Sareea 3 (Arabic for Swift Sword 3) was the largest joint military simulation between the two nations, once again highlighting the long, friendly relationship that both nations have shared for decades now. 70,000 defence personnel drawn from across Oman’s Army, Navy, Air Force and the Royal Guards, would fight and train for two weeks alongside 5,500 of their counterparts from the British Army, the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force and the Royal Marine Commandos.

Their mission? To learn to work together for a safe and secure Sultanate, as well as protect the country’s most important and invaluable resource ... it’s people. Held on the outskirts of the Omani town of Mahout, and on the sea near the area of Bantoot in the Sultanate’s central Wusta Governorate, Saif Sareea 3 was truly a mission like no other, and would make me realise just how far these brave souls were willing to go to defend their homeland, should they ever need to answer the call.

Friday, 0430 hours

To live among soldiers, one has to think and act like them. There was no point grumbling, therefore, when I woke at 4:30, long before the sun had risen, my immediate destination was the Ministry of Defence Pension Fund HQ in Seeb, from where an army bus would be ferrying a media team across the 400 kilometres to Mahout.

The soldiers who were setting up breakfast, hot tea and dates with which all those who had assembled could begin their day had showed up well before us, and went about their work in a systematic, rhythmic manner – the mission took number one priority for them. Let it never be said that an Omani forgets his hospitality.

To fuel the soldiers for their long marches carrying several kilos of heavy equipment, they were fed a simple breakfast of unleavened bread, scrambled eggs and lentils, providing their body with enough protein and carbs to keep up their strengths, and we too would share the same meal.

Friday, 0800 hours

As our bus began gathering speed on our journey south, some of those on board settled in for a quick nap – the road was long and they were many miles to go, and try as I might, I simply could not get to sleep. I was way too excited.

As the bus bore towards Mahout, I could not help but be taken aback by the sheer size and numbers of the convoys of men and material that were going in our direction. Mounted on flatbed trailers were state-of-the-art Challenger tanks, as well as bulldozers and tractors used by engineer corps for their tireless and dedicated work on the battlefield. Saif Sareea 3 may be a series of war games, but there was little room for goofing off here.

Friday, 1300 hours

As we got off the main road and onto the purpose-built gravel tracts that had been built just for Saif Sareea 3, we reached our camp, which is right next to a vehicle depot, replete with water tankers, bulldozers, tipper lorries and tow trucks for their comrades on the frontlines, should they ever be needed. Next to these heavy-duty vehicles was a Red Crescent field hospital, staffed throughout the day by dedicated teams of doctors and field medics.

After a quick recce of the camp, I checked in with the other guests into ‘Hotel Saif Sareea’, a vast military-grade tent which had been set up with little more than army cots, and a couple of rotating fans to make us a bit more comfortable. But while the rest of my bunkmates and I were offered this relative luxury, there would be little for the soldiers outside.

Out in the desert, the wind howled and whistled and whipped incessantly, bringing with it hundreds of thousands of tiny particles of sand, like some sort of vast swarm of microscopic insects. This, coupled with the heat, would’ve dissuaded most people, but soldiers are made of far sterner stuff than the rest of us, and while the rest of us hunkered down in our tents after our rather Spartan lunch of rice and fish (10 minutes is all the soldiers could spare), they went back outside into the scorching heat (and all those other unpleasant things) to tend to their duties.

Friday, 1830 hours

By the time I’d awoken, it was already nightfall, and the soldiers had finally come off duty. It was great to see their human side, as they changed out of their fatigues, lovingly folded them, and wore kandooras, stretching out their legs and sipping hot cups of tea as their comrades in arms took over for the night shift to make sure Saif Sareea 3 continued to run smoothly. While we had quick meal of rice and meat, the weather had become good enough to explore the entirety of the camp.

Four big military tents served as the mess hall, officers’ quarters and soldiers’ quarters, with six smaller ones pitched next to them for those who were needed to stay on duty. Next to them were three porta cabins, which were for their ablutions. Quick response time is key here, and four-wheel drives remain on standby at all hours for reinforcements that need to head to the front.

As I settled in to my bed, burying my nose into the autobiography of the legendary footballer Pele, I heard a rustling as our tent flap opened, bringing with it a chill gust of wind that characterised the desert nights. A couple of off-duty soldiers had made the three-hour journey to Mahout and had gotten us piping hot grilled meats and fresh-baked bread, complete with sides of hummus and salad, accompanied by the words ‘brother, come for second dinner’.

It was truly humbling to get to know these men on a personal level, whose dedication to look after other went well beyond their time in uniform. The lights went out soon afterwards, as we clambered in our beds for the night.

Saturday, 0730 hours

Reveille was at 5.30 the next morning, and today was going to be a busy day: Saif Sareea 3 was coming to a close, and it would end with a live-fire drill that would be overseen by some of both Oman and the UK’s top government and military reps.

As we piled into our army Jeep and headed to the staging grounds, the sheer scale of Saif Sareea became all the more apparent: Omani soldiers, standing guard outside machine gun-fitted bunkers and fast-attack vehicles were on high alert on all approaches. A thunderous, rolling booming noise like a thunderclap seemed to come from the flat lands below the plateau we were on, as fixed artillery batteries from both armies laid waste to their targets on the battlefield.

Overhead, the familiar fwump-fwump of an army chopper could be heard, at the head of a very special convoy which brought with it very special guests – HE Badr bin Saud Al Busaidi, Oman’s Minister responsible for Defence Affairs, and Gavin Williamson, the British Defence Secretary. Striding alongside them, emanating the sort of power that only a military uniform can bring, were the British Forces’ High Command, as well as the top officers from Oman’s GCC partners – in this case, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE, as well as Egypt, Jordan and Korea. Clearly, we were about to witness something special.

Saturday, 1030 hours

The name ‘Swift Sword’ seems apt here...this was not just a display of firepower, but one of precision. As the Royal Navy of Oman and Her Majesty’s Royal Navy opened fire from frigates that had lined up in the simulation of an amphibious assault, landing craft sped towards the shore, waiting to unleash the first wave of infantry that an enemy would have to face.

This was not a statement of bravado, but intent. As snipers marked out the positions these soldiers would take, eliminating any would-be enemies in the process, the soldiers advanced to their targets, ably supported by Special Forces choppered into the battlefield in a pincer move. Their mission accomplished, the soldiers retreated to safer ground, as the skies filled with a roar that seemed to shake the ground we were on.

Their missiles primed for launch, fighter aircraft from both nations screamed towards the battlefield, unloading their firepower with deadly precision and lethal force. Three bombing runs followed, before the pilots gave their comrades on the ground the all-clear.

As a Hercules C130 para-dropped supplies for the soldiers to rearm, Apache helicopters waited in the wings, circling for any enemies that might choose to ambush the Sultanate’s defenders. On the ridge in front of us, and from the right, armoured divisions began to advance, first putting up a screen of smoke for the infantry to take cover behind, before unleashing a devastating line of fire as they continued to move forward.

Tank cannon and rhythmic machinegun fire rang out in unison, with Javelin-launched anti-tank missiles leaving nothing to chance. Their job done, as another wave of artillery pounded the battlefield, mechanised brigades moved in quickly to mop up and secure the field.

Saturday, 1200 hours

From the point of the detached observer, this simulation may have been little more than a routine military exercise, or at least that’s what it would look like on the surface.

Underneath, however, there was far more to it than that. The highest form of cooperation between two nations, is a joint military drill like Saif Sareea 3, and the diplomats and the generals posed for the customary photos, I could not help but be amazed at the amount of hard work, dedication and sacrifice the brave men and women of both armed forces had shown. They’d lived in the desert for two weeks, away from civilisation, so that they could learn to work as one.

It showed me the spirit, the determination and the commitment to a safe and secure region that these good and brave people would unhesitatingly defend at a moment’s notice. And that, truly, showed me just how lucky we are to be protected by some of the Sultanate’s finest unsung heroes. – [email protected]

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