Muscat: For the uninitiated, “hotel Saif Sareea” might sound like any other holiday resort. Oman is, after all, ramping up its tourism plans for the future, and you might be asked where it is.
But hotel Saif Sareea is in the middle of the Omani desert. It’s a vast, billowy military tent, set up in the middle of the desert, with little more than a couple dozen army cots and a few bare bulbs suspended from the olive drab military-grade canvas of the tent’s roof.
This is not some exotic getaway in the middle of the desert, meant for people to reconnect with nature, neither is Saif Sareea the name of some rustic holiday camp.
To use its official name, Exercise Saif Sareea 3 was a joint combat simulation operation organised by the Sultan’s armed forces, in collaboration with the British.
The largest joint exercise between the two nations, Saif Sareea 3 lasted for 10 days in the deserts outside the town of Muhut in the Sultanate’s central governorate of Al Wusta, a good 400km from the capital, Muscat, and saw the participation of nearly 70,000 personnel from the Royal Army of Oman, the Omani Royal Navy, and the Royal Air Force of Oman, in addition to crack troops from His Majesty’s Special Forces Division and the Royal Guards Corps.
The UK’s forces were represented by soldiers from the British Army, sailors from the Royal Navy, and pilots from the Royal Air Force and Army Air Corps, numbering a good 5,500 in total, and Times of Oman was on the ground in Muhut, to see just what the Sultanate did to protect its borders.
While many would be using the weekend to catch up on sleep and enjoy a long lie-in, there would be no such luxury for the soldiers at camp, providing Times of Oman with an idea of what the brave defenders of the Sultanate’s sacred soil had to face on a regular basis.
The senior army officers who’d woken up even earlier to make this trip happen were bright and beaming even before the bus that was to ferry the media to Muhut at 7am on Friday had arrived.
Saif Sareea 3 is not just the biggest military exercise in terms of personnel, but in terms of materiel as well. Several units from the Royal Army of Oman would take part, including their mechanised infantry brigades, Challenger II Tanks, paratrooper corps, machine gun and anti-tank units, mortar infantry, light and medium artillery companies, surface-to-air defence batteries, drone recon aircraft, as well as entire platoons of engineers, signalmen, doctors and logistics units.
The RAFO would be bringing several of their impressive arsenals to Saif Sareea 3. Taking to the air would be the air force’s F-16s and Typhoons, as well as variants of the Hawk multirole aircraft. NH90 and Super Lynx attack choppers would also be involved, as would the ubiquitous Hercules C130 transport planes. At sea, the navy would also be sending its finest, with Command Ship Dhafra leading the 12-ship flotilla, which included artillery and fast-response units, as well as three frigates, in addition to several amphibious landing craft.
To actually see all of this in the metaphorical flesh was something else entirely. Our orientation with the soldiers’ lives began right here in Muscat, as we shared a simple but filling meal of unleavened bread, scrambled eggs and lentils for breakfast, the same sort of protein-rich food that the soldiers eat to fuel their gruelling, arduous journeys on the front lines, before boarding a bus that would take us on our six-hour journey into the Omani deserts.
En route to the rendezvous point, it was impossible to not watch in jaw-dropping wonder the flat-backed trailers transporting heavy equipment to Saif Sareea. It wasn’t uncommon to see heavy-duty bulldozers, tractors, and even battle-ready tanks on the backs of these trailers, as they made a beeline for Muhut, where land and air combat drills were taking place, with the navy practicing off-short in the region of Bantoot.
The Brits too were bringing much to Oman. Spearheaded by HMS Albion, the Royal Navy had brought a six-vessel flotilla, in addition to assault craft, while the RAF were represented by their own Typhoon fighters, as well as Apache and Chinook helicopters, the kind that is now a mainstay of most movies in popular culture.
What was most impressive was also their Voyager tanker aircraft, which allowed planes to fuel mid-flight (yes, mid-flight), with the Army sending mechanised infantry squads, Challenger Tanks, Javelin anti-armour vehicles and several artillery brigades.
An army that fights is only as good as the soldiers who fight in it, though, and Saif Sareea 3 centred on translating Oman’s close ties with the UK on a diplomatic level to working together on a battlefield, should it be required. But to get so many working parts to function as one was far from easy.
Anyone who is headed to Muhut to see the detailed preparations of the Sultan’s Armed Forces will truly make them respect the spadework that had been done to make Saif Sareea 3 a success. The army had built roads leading up to the various staging grounds, so that those who needed to get to them could do so in short order. This vast operation, though, never slept. Soldiers are seldom allowed the luxury of time during their rather Spartan meal of rice and fish. Some 10 minutes was all the time they could spare.
While outsiders and civilians who visit the camp are often allowed to catch up on sleep, with the luxury of sheets (ooh, sheets!) being made available, relatively safe from the furiously roaring incessant winds that brought with them thousands of fine-grained particles of sand, and the scorching heat of the afternoon sun, for the soldiers, though, it was just another day.
Armed with little more than a dedication to their duty and a desire to fulfil their mission, the brave young men of the Omani Army thought little of the environment and focused solely on the task at hand. Night fell quickly at camp – it was dark by 6.30 – but that didn’t mean the soldiers were done for the day.
All through the night, soldiers took turns to provide whatever was needed to their comrades on the frontline, selflessly paying little heed to their own comforts. The camp was situated next to a vehicle depot, one where lines of bulldozers, tipper lorries, water tankers and flat-top trailers were parked, ready to report to the front and see to the needs of the soldiers there in a mere matter of minutes.
This excursion truly provided a wonderful insight into the ways of the soldier. The men and women who were part of Saif Sareea 3 and Al Shumookh 2, another exercise that ran parallel to this one, had been here for a month, in the midst of a most uncomfortable environment, for the sake of become better professionals when it came to answering the call of their homeland. Constant vigilance was their watchword. In many ways, it makes the citizens and residents of this country rest easy, knowing that the Sultanate is in such capable hands.
But more importantly, it makes everyone who lives and works in this land realise just how lucky they are.