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Saudi generals use Yemen war to showcase their new swagger

In this photo provided by the Saudi Press Agency (SPA), Royal Saudi Land Forces and units of Special Forces of the Pakistani army take part in a joint military exercise called "Al-Samsam 5" in Shamrakh field, north of Baha region, southwest Saudi Arabia. (SPA/AP)

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- There’s no fog of war here. It’s more like a high-gloss, stage-crafted showcase of Saudi Arabia’s new military swagger.

Every evening since the Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen began last week, the fortress-like grounds of the defense ministry in Riyadh has opened to journalists. They listen to a briefing on the latest battlefield events, see some black-and-white warplane video clips of missiles destroying suspected rebel buildings and convoys, and pose a few questions. All pretty standard fare for reporters covering any conflict.

But the Saudis have added their own sense of purpose and pride. The event has become something of a possible dress rehearsal for a country that could be quickly moving out of the background of American-directed security agreements and taking regional matters into its own hands.

The optics leave no doubt that Saudi Arabia is in charge. The news conference opens with 30-second made-for-TV spot showing Saudi armed forces with a baritone voice-over from the country's new monarch, King Salman. “It’s all about my people,” he says. “You cannot touch any of them.”

Then enters the spokesman for the mostly Arab coalition backing up the Saudi attacks against Shiite rebels in Yemen that drove out the country’s president and – Saudi Arabia and its allies fear – could open the door wider for influence by Shiite power Iran.

Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asseri stands in front of the flags of the nations aiding Saudi Arabia, including the country’s Gulf Arab partners and others such as Egypt. But spread out in front of him is an array of expertly built models of Saudi’s military power: warplanes, attack helicopters, tanks, armored personnel carriers. Most of the Saudi arsenal has been purchased from the United States. But in a rare display of military self-sufficiency in the Persian Gulf, there is no overt sign of U.S. partnership.

Instead, the news conference seeks to reinforce Saudi Arabia’s time in the spotlight across the Arab world – via  powerful networks such as Saudi-owned Al Arabiya.

Before showtime Tuesday, an aide picked about a half-dozen questioners from local and foreign journalists. He asked one correspondent to ask his question in French, apparently to highlight Asseri’s polyglot skills.

When a question ran long, the aide made hand signals to Asseri to cut it short. The Saudis want a tight, on-point and – of course — embarrassment-free broadcast.

After Tuesday’s event, some Saudi journalists swarmed around the aide. They demanded to know why it seemed some foreign reporters seemed to get preference in asking a question.

The aide’s reply: Sometimes the local questions ramble. We need to keep it moving along. There’s a viewing audience at home to think about.

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