Ali Al-Salem Airbase


 The first time I saw Saber Suwaidan was during a visit to the Kuwaiti Air Force in 1971. He was a young pilot. I envied him for his squash playing skills, he was seeded number one in Kuwait. Envy led me to believe that he is nothing but a squash player. How much I was mistaken. Now I play squash with General Saber and the only envy I have is to those who served under him. Here is his story. The story of the commander who would not leave his air base.

On the 1st  of August 1990, after finishing a friendly game of squash Colonel Saber went home to have dinner and go early to sleep as usual. At 10:30 that night he received a call from Head Quarters ordering him to go to the airbase.

He was the commander of Ali Al-Salem Air Base. His wife got concerned, but he promised to call her from the base. Mrs. Suwaidan had to endure seven months of agony until she could hear the voice of her beloved husband.

Saber arrived at the base around 11:15. He could not think of anything other than his obligation to defend Kuwait, the protection of his men’s lives and the preservation of the assets he had been trusted with. He forgot to call his wife.

He had a lot of things to do. The day before they had a sandstorm, the sand had blocked the doors of the weapons stores. The bulldozer crews were away for the weekend. So they had to shuffle the sand manually. The base had a limited crew to arm and fuel the planes. So he asked everybody to chip in and do jobs they usually did not do. For instance he asked the Pakistani maintenance crew to help in arming the planes.

At 3:45 AM the next day the Air Operations Center asked Ali Al-Salem to intercept two helicopter formations totaling 70 planes. One formation was heading to the base and the other to Kuwait City most probably to Dasman Palace the Amir’s residence. Saber knew that he should do whatever he can to protect the life of his Chief Commander the Amir of Kuwait.

It took Saber only ten minutes to have four planes in the air. The pilots were Captain Mohammed Al-Dossari, and Lieutenants Habis Al-Mutairi, Abdullah Suwailim, and Ali Al-Anzi. Each shot two Iraqi helicopters using their air-to-air missiles. Twenty minutes later Colonel Saber launched two more planes. The pilots were Major Taher Al-Taher and Lieutenant Bassam Al-Jouaid. Al-Jouaid downed two planes using his air-to-air missiles, but Al-Taher was not satisfied with only two so he used his 30mm cannon to down a third one. They flew back to the base to refuel and rearm. Then went back to face that military juggernaut. But this time they could not come back to the base.

The Iraqis were not long in retaliating. As the sky lightened, they attacked all the KAF bases using Sukhoi bombers escorted by their own Mirages (Planes Kuwait financed their purchase). They destroyed the runway at Ali Al-Salem. No plane could take off from that runway with full load of fuel and armaments.

Colonel Saber knew by then that he could not have his planes back. So he ordered them to go to Ahmed Al-Jaber Air Base to refuel and go to Saudi Arabia. As they approached Ahmed Al-Jaber they could not land because the runway was littered with Airdropped mines. They had two choices land on the runway and get killed by the mines or eject and lose their planes. They decided on a daring operation. To land on a side road that is barely wide enough for the undercarriage of the Mirage. They refueled and left to Saudi Arabia.

While Saber was lamenting the loss of his runway he realized that there is only one thing left to do. Send as much as possible of the planes under his command to Saudi Arabia. So he armed two Mirages with limited weaponry and fuel, just to take them to Ahmed Al-Jaber Air Base and be able to protect themselves along the way. The light planes could do a short take-off and did not need the full length of the runway. Each plane shot down an Iraqi helicopter on their way to Ahmed Al-Jaber. Then they continued to Saudi Arabia. By 9 AM most of the planes had left the air base.

Saber never lost his humanitarian responsibilities. He asked his men to treat the wounded Iraqis and bury the dead.

Unfortunately Saber could not save all the Mirages. He was short of pilots. I asked him why did he not fly one of those planes to Saudi Arabia, as he was a Mirage pilot. He looked at me with astonishment and coolly told me. I am the commander of the base and I had to be the last to leave. A startling contrast to what the Iraqi commanders did during Dessert Storm when they fled and left their soldiers with no leadership.

Later on the air base was captured.