US-Saudi downplay Florida terror shooting as ties scrutinised
Within hours of a Saudi military trainee carrying out a deadly shooting on a United States Navy base in Florida, the messages coming out of the Trump administration were chiming perfectly with those from the royal palaces of Riyadh.
The way they told it, Mohammed Alshamrani, who murdered three classmates at the Pensacola base in an apparent lone-wolf terrorist rampage, revealed nothing about how Saudis truly feel about their long-standing American allies.
Despite this official narrative, the killing spree has called in to question how the Trump administration has doubled down on a security-for-cash arrangement with a Gulf monarchy that shares few common values with America.
Worse still, the attack has alarmed US veterans, military families and security hawks – folks who often align with President Donald Trump's Republican Party – sowing discord among groups that wield much influence in the White House.
Ali Al-Ahmed, a veteran Washington-based critic of Saudi domestic and foreign policies, told The New Arab that Alshamrani's killing spree underscored profound differences between the US and the austere ideologies found in the conservative kingdom.
"The Saudi military feeds its forces with radical, religious, Islamic State-style Wahabiist ideas and negative depictions of crusading Jews and Christians that can motivate the kind of act we saw in Pensacola," said Ahmed.
|The Saudi military feeds its forces with radical, religious, Islamic State-style Wahabiist ideas and negative depictions of crusading Jews and Christians that can motivate the kind of act we saw in Pensacola|
"The attack is particularly worrisome for Trump and the Saudi royals because it calls into question the lack of shared values between the two countries and exposes the true nature of an expedient relationship that is only about guns and money."
Alshamrani, 21, was a second lieutenant in the Royal Saudi Air Force who was attending Naval Air Station Pensacola, where foreign aviators have trained alongside US forces since 1995 under a military scheme between the US and its allies.
On Friday, he shot and killed three classmates – Joshua Kaleb Watson, 23, Mohammed Sameh Haitham, 19, and Cameron Scott Walters, 21 – with a Glock 9mm model 45 handgun, before he was shot dead. Eight other people were injured in the attack.
Read more here: Saudi military trainee opens fire at Florida naval base, kills three
The FBI has been tight-lipped about its probe, but describes an act of terrorism. Ahead of the attack, Alshamrani reportedly complained about his treatment by an instructor on the base, posted anti-US messages online and played mass-shooting videos to others.
In one online post, Alshamrani reportedly bashed US policies in Muslim countries. Other Saudi trainees at Pensacola reportedly made cell phone videos or looked on during Alshamrani's attack; 10 Saudis were held for questioning by the FBI.
Soon after the carnage, Donald Trump spoke with King Salman. Unprompted, the US President later told reporters how Saudi royals were "devastated" by an act that "in no way shape or form represents the feelings of the Saudi people" towards America.
Press releases blitzed out of Riyadh, declaring that the "heinous crime does not represent the Saudi people" and praising the "valuable training" in Florida that helped Saudi forces "fight side by side with our American allies against terrorism."
The camaraderie was echoed by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other senior officials from the US and Saudi Arabia, which forged a multibillion-dollar security and oil relationship in 1945 that has weathered the decades despite glaring religious and cultural contrasts.
Meanwhile, another narrative was emerging – not among the lefty US activists who blast Riyadh over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and other alleged abuses – but from within the whitebread Republican base that Trump needs to secure re-election in 2020.
Read also: Saudi military training in US under scrutiny after base attack
The Governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, a Republican and ally of Trump, called for tougher checks on would-be military trainees like Alshamrani coming to the US, saying "they should not be doing that if they hate our country."
Matt Gaetz, another Republican politician from Florida and Trump protege, decried a "planned terrorist attack" in which the "shooter wasn't alone" and urged "full cooperation and no interference from the Kingdom" as the FBI investigates.
The shooting also revived painful memories of the 9/11 attacks, when many of the al-Qaeda-linked hijackers who flew planes into the Pentagon, World Trade Center and Pennsylvania countryside were Saudi nationals who had flight training in the US.
Rand Paul, a well-known Republican senator from Kentucky, said Saudi connections to Pensacola, 9/11 and Khashoggi, who was murdered by a Saudi hit squad in a Saudi consulate last October, beg questions about the decades-old amity.
"It's way past time to quit arming and training the Saudis!" Paul wrote on Twitter.
The shooting shines an uncomfortable spotlight on US-Saudi ties, which bring together to biggest arms seller and the biggest weapons buyer on the planet, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a monitoring group.
Despite growing concerns over the alliance, Trump reinforced ties with Saudi, which is now effectively ruled by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, continuing arms flows despite concerns of Saudi military abuses in its war in neighbouring Yemen.
Critics say that Trump and the Saudi monarchy have too much invested in an association that struggles to sustain the weight of military and diplomatic support without the buttresses of common values or social norms.
Hisham Melhem, a columnist and scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, a think tank, tweeted that Trump is "more interested in allying the concerns" of his "Saudi friends" than in "consoling the families of the victims" of Alshamrani's bloodbath.
Sunjeev Bery, director of the anti-autocrat campaign group Freedom Forward, said that despite the headlines from Pensacola, lawmakers from both parties were pushing ahead with a defence spending bill that permitted ongoing arms sales for Saudi to use in Yemen.
"While many people across the US deeply dislike the Saudi dictatorship, US politicians in Washington DC continue to back this brutal government," Bery told The New Arab.
"It's an extreme example of how defence lobbyists, military planners, and feckless politicians ignore the perspectives of the American people when it comes to US alliances with dictators."
James Reinl is a journalist, editor and current affairs analyst. He has reported from more than 30 countries and won awards for covering wars in Sri Lanka, Congo and Somalia, Haiti's earthquake and human rights abuses in Iran.
Follow him on Twitter: @jamesreinl