Trump eager to preserve US-Saudi ties after Pensacola shooting

A US Defence Department memo noted that Saudi Arabia was an “essential partner” and that more than 28,000 Saudi military students had received training over the years “without serious incident.”
Sunday 15/12/2019
US President Donald Trump (L) and Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud take part in a signing ceremony at the Saudi Royal Court in Riyadh, 2017. (AFP)
US President Donald Trump (L) and Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud take part in a signing ceremony at the Saudi Royal Court in Riyadh, 2017. (AFP)

Since the killing of three US Navy personnel by a Saudi aviation student in Pensacola, Florida, US President Donald Trump has gone out of his way to keep the US-Saudi relationship intact as much as possible.

Shortly after the shootings December 6, Trump said Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud had called him to offer his sincere condolences. Trump said King Salman “will be involved in taking care of families and loved ones.” He emphasised that both the Saudi king and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz “are devastated by what took place in Pensacola.”

Trump tweeted that King Salman said the “Saudi people are greatly angered by the barbaric actions of the shooter and that this person in no way, shape or form represents the feelings of the Saudi people who love the American people.”

Trump’s words, however, did little to dampen the outcry over the killings. The Republican governor of Florida, Rick Scott, told the Trump-friendly media outlet Fox News that “we need to suspend this programme” of training foreign nationals in US military bases.

A US congressman from Florida, Matt Gaetz, also a Republican, described the attack as “an act of terrorism” and said the killings should “inform our ongoing relationship with Saudi Arabia.” Gaetz is one of Trump’s most loyal defenders in the impeachment inquiry but he and Trump see the Saudi relationship much differently.

Democrats, such as US Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who have been highly critical of Saudi Arabia over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the Yemen war, used the Pensacola incident as another indication that US policy towards Saudi Arabia needs to be changed. Murphy charged that the Trump administration had become public relations “agents for the Saudis.”

Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said he wished Trump “was pressing the Saudi government for answers,” implying that the president was not.

Even some Republican members of Congress joined in on the criticism. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky tweeted: “It’s way past time to quit arming and training the Saudis.”

US media reported that the Saudi military aviation student posted messages shortly before the shootings that indicated he was angry over US foreign policy, calling it “evil.” This led political observers in Washington to question the vetting process of the Saudi and US governments of those sent to the United States for military training.

In response to the initial investigations of the incident, and perhaps because of mounting criticism of the foreign training programme, on December 10 the Pentagon suspended nearly 900 Saudi military students from operational training, which involves flight instruction and firing training. Only classroom training would be allowed. The Pentagon referred to this action as a “safety stand-down,” pending the investigation of the Pensacola killings.

Although, as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Trump could have reversed the safety stand-down order, he probably did not want to override the Pentagon on this issue because of strained relations with the US military over his controversial pardons of three US service members who had been or were about to face court-martial.

However, the New York Times reported, an unnamed Pentagon official emphasised that suspension of operational training for the Saudis would be only for a short period and would not adversely affect the US-Saudi strategic partnership. Clearly, the official was taking cues from the White House, which wants to minimise the fallout with the Saudis over the halt of operational training.

A US Defence Department memo, obtained by the Times, noted that Saudi Arabia was an “essential partner” of the United States and that more than 28,000 Saudi military students had received training over the years “without serious incident.”

In other words, the Trump administration’s message is that no matter how terrible the Pensacola killings were, they should not disrupt valuable US-Saudi ties.

On the campaign trail, the Pensacola killings are likely to provide fodder for Democrats who have accused Trump of kowtowing to the Saudis. At the Democratic presidential debate November 20, candidates were highly critical of Saudi Arabia. Even former US Vice-President Joe Biden, normally measured in his discussion of foreign policy matters, referred to Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” state.

In the Democratic presidential debate scheduled for December 19 similar comments are expected. Although members from both political parties praised the suspension of operational training for Saudi military students, the Democrats are likely to zero in on Trump’s keen desire to protect the bilateral relationship “at all costs.”

Former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel was quoted as calling the Pensacola attack “a disaster for an already deeply strained relationship.”

Trump’s strategy to mitigate the strains is likely to continue facing calls for a reassessment of relations between Washington and Riyadh.