Bahrain, Asharq Al-Awsat- Major General Mutlaq Bin Salem al-Azima is the commander of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) military wing, the Peninsula Shield force. Established in the 1980s, and first mobilized in 1986, the force has a mandate to protect the security and integrity of all member states of the GCC. The size of the force has grown significantly over the years, as member states contributed equipment and personnel, thus creating a highly trained unit to efficiently respond to regional crises. The current Peninsula Shield force consists of nearly 40,000 troops, with a permanent base in Hafar al-Batin, Saudi Arabia. To date, it has only experienced armed combat in Kuwait, where it has twice been deployed [firstly during the second Gulf War in 1991, and in 2003 prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq]. The force gained significant media coverage in March 2011, when it entered the Bahraini capital Manama, at the request of the Bahraini government, in order to provide protection for strategic sites.
Following a guided tour of the Peninsula Shield force’s temporary headquarters in Bahrain, Asharq al-Awsat met with Major General Mutlaq Bin Salem al-Azima in his office. He offered his views on the international and regional perceptions of his force, including the recent praise and criticism it has received. Furthermore, al-Azima also provided an insight into the coming plans and ambitions of the GCC’s military wing, and how he envisioned the situation in Bahrain to develop in the near future. The following is the text from the interview.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] We have heard a lot of news about the GCC Peninsula Shield Forces in recent days, has this increased the forces standing and prestige in the region?
[Al-Azima] No…we cannot say this, for the Peninsula Shield Forces is already well-known, and we hope that we can always show the true prestige of the Peninsula Shield, which is to defend the Gulf States, people, and achievements. The GCC Peninsula Shield was established to be an organized force based upon sound agreements and conventions made in 2007 following the liberation of Kuwait. This was the true beginning of the joint-Peninsula Shield force. It is well-known that there are rapid response troops and special force. However it is also important to note that all GCC states must provide forces to the “Peninsula Shield” depending on what is required. These troops may be required on a certain front, or more than one front, depending upon the threats being faced by the Gulf region, and this is what the Peninsula Shield forces prestige is based upon.
However perhaps what you mean is that the media profile of the Peninsula Shield has increased during this period, and the reality is that the prestige of the Peninsula Shield forces is based upon the sincere leadership that is held jointly between the [GCC] states, and in the presence of modern and well-developed troops, as well as in the sincere and well-trained human forces.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your view regarding the intensification of the media’s coverage of the GCC Peninsula Shield forces?
[Al-Azima] This is undoubtedly based upon the present requirements and circumstances [in the region]. Everybody knows that there is no room for isolation, weakness, or seclusion today. Even in developed states, we see that blocs and coalitions – whether this is military, economic, or political – are the dominant feature today in international relations. This is why it is necessary for us to unite our forces and viewpoints, particularly when the situation in the region is intensifying. Therefore this reflects the common destiny of the Gulf States, with a united viewpoint on what represents the common good for the Gulf.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What tasks are being undertaken by the GCC Peninsula Shield forces in Bahrain?
[Al-Azima] We have repeatedly confirmed that our mission is to secure Bahrain’s vital and strategically important military infrastructure from any foreign interference. Everybody knows that when a state becomes preoccupied with its internal security, this increases its need to secure its international borders. Bahrain is part of the Gulf region, and its forces make up part of the Peninsula Shield, this means that our undertaking of this task is an important and vital part of the role being played by the Peninsula Shield, according to the conventions agreed upon by the GCC states. This is our role. We understand that the Bahraini security forces – and this is something that history attests to – are highly efficient and disciplined, to the point that this situation did not require the utilization of the Peninsula Shield Bahraini special forces, which are stationed in certain areas to protect the Bahraini borders. This confirms that our forces did not come [to Bahrain] due to the internal affairs in the country, but for a more important reason [to protect the borders].
[Asharq Al-Awsat] We have seen images of Bahraini citizens crying with joy upon the entry of the GCC Peninsula Shield forces, whilst other Bahraini citizens held a different opinion on this. How did you find the situation on the ground?
[Al-Azima] Our entry to Bahrain represented security and safety to all the people of Bahrain, and as I said before, I challenge anybody to prove that any Bahraini citizen suffered so much as a scratch from us. I challenge anybody to prove that we brought in arms or any other rumors being circulated within Bahrain. Those who are fueling prejudices and telling untruths are not benefiting anybody, but rather they are harming those they are trying to help. Bahrain is a land of love, peace, and goodness, and we came to help the government to bring goodness, peace, and love to Bahrain.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you believe that the Peninsula Shield requires greater development, as well as greater administrative and financial independence, in light of the current circumstances in the region?
[Al-Azima] The Peninsula Shield operates according to a clear system, and there is a strategy of development, with organized annual meetings taking place between different parties, including meetings on military cooperation and joint-defense. This all takes place with the approval of the leadership of Gulf States and as a result of large [financial] aid from them. What many perhaps do not know is that the GCC Supreme Council has occasionally moved faster than us with regards to its ambitions, because it wants us to operate and develop further, and this requires the signing of certain contracts and the application of certain training. We will work hard to achieve the ambitions of the Gulf leadership. The Peninsula Shield is an integrated system with sufficient equipment, arms, and cadres. This is an emergency force, and so it has special forces, rapid response troops, as well as support troops in the main forces of [Gulf] states. This support depends upon the type [of emergency being responded to], and its location. Therefore one state cannot request [emergency] troops from a state that is distant from the events taking place, especially when there is another state closer to it. The country that is closest must provide immediate support and the majority of the troops for the Peninsula Shield forces to carry out its mission during this state of emergency.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is there a tendency for some forces within the Peninsula Shield to continually find themselves being called upon?
[Al-Azima] This trend is part of our training, and our presence in Bahrain today is also in the context of this training, particularly with regards to the current situation in the region. What is required from the Peninsula Shield forces is for it to be prepared to travel to all the [Gulf] countries, and this represents an essential and fundamental requirement.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How would you describe the GCC Peninsula Shield forces cooperation with the Bahraini military leadership?
[Al-Azima] There can be no doubt that this cooperation is more than ideal, and this is not strange for the Bahraini leadership, military leadership, or the honorable people of Bahrain. There is strong coordination, cooperation, and support on all levels, whether we are talking about the leadership level, or the individual soldiers within each unit. This is based upon the spirit of brotherhood and unity.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Peninsula Shield forces have only experienced combat during Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, so how can you raise your forces expertise and capability to deal with any future crises?
[Al-Azima] We have a joint-training approach that is being implemented in all the [Gulf] states. Just a short time ago, we completed advanced training exercises in all Gulf States, and this training program achieved great success, dealing with a number of [security] scenarios and methods of resolving them. These training exercises also included military units coordinating with one another, following the path of continuous development.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Peninsula Shield forces deployment to Bahrain has been attacked and criticized by several parties. How do you view this?
[Al-Azima] I can say that this has been caused by the media, which is trying to mislead the truth, and this only has one affect, namely to increase our strength and our belief in the justice of our cause, because the Peninsula Shield forces, and the GCC [military] forces in general, have been established by wise leaders, and are supported by great peoples.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you believe that the other GCC military forces require development, with regards to their military capabilities?
[Al-Azima] I would not be exaggerating to tell you that the GCC [military] forces are, after NATO, the best. No country has F-15s, Tornados, Mirages, and Typhoon jets, as well as the various different kinds of modern tanks, and all forms and varieties of naval craft. There is great coordination [between the Gulf States]; and we [the GCC military forces] have military forces that no state or institute in the world can compete with, with the exception of NATO. We also have wise leadership who love security and safety and peace, but the problem is with others, who only look at us from this side [loving security and safety and peace], but cannot view us from the other side, with regards to power and strength. We only want them to have a balanced outlook.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you tell us if there are going to be any plans to arm the Peninsula Shield forces in the near future?
[Al-Azima] Arming is a strategic option for the Supreme Council of the GCC, and the Peninsula Shield force is made up of prepared forces. As for preparedness or readiness, this is something for the [GCC] states themselves, and our role is focused on organization and training and mixing units together to form a united force to serve the strategic goals of the GCC.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are all GCC states participating in the Peninsula Shield force deployed in Bahrain?
[Al-Azima] The troops that are present in Bahrain only constitute around 10 percent of the GCC Peninsula Shield forces, and all the units that are present are made up of troops from all 6 GCC states, for the Peninsula Shield forces does not take any action without the participation of units from all [GCC] states.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] However some reports have reported that some GCC states have withdrawn their troops, such as Qatar. Is there any truth to such reports?
[Al-Azima] No country has withdrawn its troops, and our Qatari brothers are one of the greatest supporters of the Peninsula Shield and its leadership, as is the case with all GCC States who undoubtedly support the Peninsula Shield.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you tell us about the Peninsula Shield forces morale?
[Al-Azima] If our enemies knew the extent of our cadres spirit and morale, they would be aware that we are more than brothers, and that we are united by a spirit of love and brotherhood more than any one family, and may God bear witness to my words. The people are well and things are good.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Would you agree to the Peninsula Shield forces being deployed outside of the Gulf region?
[Al-Azima] The Peninsula Shield force was established to defend the GCC states as one state, and this is according to the conventions agreed upon with the establishment of this force…as for it participating in missions beyond the scope of the role it was established to fulfill, this is a decision for the leadership of the Gulf States.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have the Peninsula Shield forces ever taken part in joint exercises with US military forces in the Gulf?
[Al-Azima] Our training exercises are limited to the Peninsula Shield forces, because we have all the capabilities, from a variety of weaponry, diverse and informed minds, and advanced [training] courses in all GCC member states. With the combination of state-of-the-art weaponry and human forces with great capabilities, this certainly combines to create the best forces in the region.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is the GCC Peninsula Shield force facing any obstacles?
[Al-Azima] Never, there are no obstacles. These obstacles only exist in the mind of the biased media. As for us, we have trust and confidence in our troops, as well as in our leaders and their wisdom, and our people.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What are your ambitions for the future?
[Al-Azima] We have great ambitions, and these have been announced and planned. These ambitions include many programmed steps, and we will follow these steps and not pay any attention to those who criticize us.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will the Peninsula Shield forces be staying in Bahrain for a long period of time?
[Al-Azima] This depends upon the desires of the leadership of the Kingdom of Bahrain, and a large part of our forces in the Peninsula Shield force are part of the Bahraini defense force. Whether we stay or go, we are in our country and amongst our brothers, and we – as leaders – have demands to establish training exercises, and give all forces the opportunity to carry out training exercises to maintain their standards, and raise their capabilities.