Pensacola Shooting Begs the Question, How Long Can US-Saudi Alliance Last?
The recent Pensacola shooting at a U.S. naval base by a Saudi lieutenant is a reminder of the dangers of U.S. Middle East policy.
The brutal shooting at a U.S. Naval Base in Pensacola, Florida last week involving a Saudi lieutenant in the Saudi Royal Air Force raises questions, once again, about the U.S.-Saudi Arabian alliance and U.S. interventionist policies in the Middle East. The shooting suggests even Saudi nationals are growing weary of the pro-interventionist policies shared by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.
On December 6, a Saudi national identified as Mohammed Alshamrani opened fire in the Pensacola Naval Base, where he was participating in a training program sponsored by the Pentagon and in coordination with Saudi Arabia. The deadly shooting killed four (including the shooter who was killed by a local sheriff) and wounded eight. The fatal incident took place just two days after a shooting at a base in Pearl Harbor.
The Department of Defense suspended military training for all Saudi trainees in the U.S. until further notice is announced, meaning that the suspension will ground more than 300 Saudi aviation students, The Guardian reported.
“A safety stand-down and operational pause commenced Monday for Saudi Arabian aviation students,” said Lieutenant Andriana Genualdi, a Navy spokeswoman, as NBC wrote.
The Federal Bureau Investigation (FBI) announced Sunday it is investigating the case and operating under the presumption that the shooting was an act of terrorism and the culprit acted by himself. The FBI’s announcement came a day after Secretary of Defense Robert Esper said he could not call the attack an “act of terrorism”.
More than 5,000 trainees from 153 countries participate in military training in the U.S., with 852 of them from Saudi Arabia. Pensacola Naval Base is one of the 150 military facilities that provide training to foreign military officers annually.
Alshamrani was one of the Saudi participants who started a three-year training program in August 2017. The course included basic aviation, piloting and English. All international students’ backgrounds are strictly screened for support of terrorism, involvement in drug trafficking, or other crimes before joining the program.
US – Saudi Relationship
When President Trump’s fellow Republican politicians condemned the Pensacola shooting as an act of terrorism and called for the suspension of the training, Trump was quick to defend Saudi Arabia as a close U.S. ally, describing how Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman was shocked and devastated by the Pensacola incident.
“They are devastated in Saudi Arabia. And the king will be involved in taking care of families and loved ones. He feels very strongly. He’s very, very devastated by what happened and what took place. Likewise, the crown prince. They are devastated by what took place in Pensacola,” the President told reporters.
Trump’s response is unsurprising given the long allied history of the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Unlike Iran and the U.S.’ volatile relationship, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have long been fervent allies (an alliance first formed under Nixon) thanks to a bond over oil, weapons and shared Middle East goals.
Both Saudi and the U.S. try to block Iran’s influence in the Middle East and see Tehran as the primary threat in the world’s most volatile region. Recently, Washington and Riyadh accused Tehran of masterminding a drone attack on a Saudi oil facility last September despite Houthi claims of responsibility for the attack.
In response to the oil facility attack, the U.S. agreed to send more troops to Saudi Arabia at the kingdom’s request. The Pentagon said it has deployed around 3,000 additional troops to the oil-producing nation since September 2019.
Is Saudi Arabia Really an Ally?
The Pensacola shooting, however, once again raises the question of whether Saudi Arabia is a true ally of the U.S. It’s a question that has lingered since the involvement of Saudi nationals in the 9/11 attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001.
Of the 19 hijackers on 9/11, 15 were Saudi Arabian. Yet the U.S. and kingdom of Saudi Arabia have been eager to deny any Saudi involvement in 9/11. The Congress-initiated 9/11 commission claimed there was no evidence of Saudi involvement in the tragedy that killed around 3,000. This is despite other reports that the hijackers received funding from Saudi officials and that the Department of Justice had planned to reveal the names of 3 officials linked to the attacks, though it never did.
Other issues suggesting Saudi Arabia is not the ally the U.S. needs include the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi (who was a Saudi national) and Saudi Arabia’s role in the Yemen War which has devastated the country.
Yet, despite Congress’ widespread opposition to U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia because of Yemen and Khashoggi, Trump circumvented Congress’ authority by approving arms sales worth over $8 billion, citing Iranian threats as a reason to provide Saudi Arabia with American weapons.
Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest arms buyer, mainly buying importing from the U.S which is the world’s largest arms exporter. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Saudi’s arms imports from 2014 to 2018 skyrocketed 192 percent in comparison to 2009-2013.
Notably, Trump’s frequent defense of Saudi Arabia and eagerness to sign weapons contracts with the country contradict statements he made during his 2016 presidential campaign in 2016. Then the billionaire had called Saudi Arabia the world’s biggest funder of terrorism.
“It’s the world’s biggest funder of terrorism. Saudi Arabia funnels our petrodollars, our very own money, to fund the terrorists that seek to destroy our people,” Trump said in his campaign.
Blowback and the Pensacola Shooting
Only two days before the Pensacola shooting, Alshamrani posted a manifesto expressing his opposition to U.S. interventionist policy in the Middle East.
“I’m against evil, and America as a whole has turned into a nation of evil. I’m not against you for just being American; I don’t hate you because your freedoms, I hate you because every day you [are] supporting, funding and committing crimes not only against Muslims but also humanity,” the deceased trainee tweeted (before his account was suspended).
The controversial and best-selling book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt (published in 2007) warned of the potential for blowback from the U.S. pro-Israel policy and its interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, as Ronald Enzweiler noted in an article for Antiiwar.com.
As Enzweiller explains, the book’s thesis is how U.S. interventionist policies in the Middle East are driven by a powerful pro-Israel lobby in Washington. The book received heavy pushback from that same lobby and faced a campaign to discredit it in the U.S., but according to Enzweiller, the book remained widely popular in the Middle East.
“I was often asked by the college-educated/English speaking Muslims with whom I associated and mentored, ‘Why is America spending hundreds of billions to promote democracy and human rights in the Middle East; yet your country allows the Israelis to treat the Palestinians so unjustly?’ Most knew the real answer to this question and were just jiving me. I would tell the others, ‘I’ll lend you a book to read,’” writes Enzweiller.
As the Pensacola shooting also shows, not all Saudi Arabians love the U.S. nor the pro-interventionist policies shared by the U.S.-Saudi alliance. How much longer can it last?