Trump criticised for rush to defend Saudis after pilot kills three at US navy base: 'He’s a spokesman for Saudi Arabia’

Middle East expert warns president is creating 'zone of immunity' for Saudi regime

Conrad Duncan
Sunday 08 December 2019 18:18 GMT
Washington Post columnist calls Trump a 'spokesperson for Saudi Arabia'

Donald Trump has been criticised for “parroting” Saudi Arabia's defence after a Saudi gunman killed three sailors at a Florida navy base.

Mohammed Alshamrani, who was training at the base, opened fire on Friday at the Naval Air Station Pensacola, killing three and injuring at least eight other people before he was shot dead.

The attack has brought attention to the US’ decision to train Saudi military officers after anti-US tweets from an account appearing to match Alshamrani’s identity were found.

However, Mr Trump has appeared to be unusually disinterested in uncovering the circumstances around the attack and swiftly defended Saudi Arabia.

The president told reporters that officials in Saudi Arabia are “devastated” by the incident and “the king [King Salman] will be involved in taking care of families and loved ones”.

His response has been questioned by foreign policy experts who have accused Mr Trump of covering for the Saudi regime.

“The attack is a disaster for an already deeply strained relationship,” Bruce Riedel, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, told The New York Times.

Mr Riedel criticised “the president’s parroting of the Saudi line” before the results of an investigation into the attack and the suspect’s motives have been released.

Max Boot, a Washington Post columnist, accused Mr Trump of acting as “a spokesman for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”.

“Imagine how he would've reacted to this terrorist attack if the shooter had been a Mexican immigrant or Muslim immigrant from any other country in the world other than Saudi Arabia,” Mr Boot said on CNN.

His criticism was echoed by Aaron David Miller, a Middle East negotiator and senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who said Mr Trump had created a “virtually impenetrable zone of immunity for Saudi Arabia”.

Mr Miller said the president was driven to defend the country by “oil, money, weapons sales, a good deal of Saudi feting and flattery.”

Saudi Arabia is considered to be a critical US ally due to its oil supply and its ability to counter Iran in the Middle East region.

The Pensacola attack follows the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent journalist and critic of the Saudi royal family, in 2018.

Despite the CIA concluding that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman had ordered Khashoggi's assasination, Mr Trump refused to condemn the prince.

"It could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event - maybe he did and maybe he didn't," he told reporters.

On Saturday, Mark Esper, the acting secretary of defence, said it was too early to say if the shooting was an act of terrorism but added that he had ordered a review of security and vetting policies in the Department of Defence.

Although Mr Trump has appeared reluctant to criticise Saudi Arabia, the country has not escaped criticism over the attack.

Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, said there would be “a lot of questions” about Alshamrani and how he was allowed to train on US soil.

“The government of Saudi Arabia needs to make things better for these victims, I think they are going to owe a debt here given that this is one of their individuals,” Mr DeSantis said.

Florida representative Matt Gaetz, who has been a staunch defender of Mr Trump, described the shooting as “an act of terrorism” on Friday.

The Pensacola attack was also the second shooting at a US military base this week, following an attack at Pearl Habour in which two workers were shot dead by a US sailor.

US media has reported that Alshamrani played videos of mass shootings at a dinner before the attack, raising further questions about his state of mind and fitness for military service.

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