Saudi Arabia distances itself from gunman who killed 3 at US military base

Rampage by Saudi military student is setback to kingdom’s efforts to quash image of exporting Islamic extremism; Florida governor says Saudis ‘owe a debt’

Florida state troopers block traffic over the Bayou Grande Bridge leading to the Pensacola Naval Air Station following a shooting on December 6, 2019, in Pensacola, Florida. (Josh Brasted/Getty Images/AFP)
Florida state troopers block traffic over the Bayou Grande Bridge leading to the Pensacola Naval Air Station following a shooting on December 6, 2019, in Pensacola, Florida. (Josh Brasted/Getty Images/AFP)

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AFP) — Saudi Arabia sought to distance itself Saturday from a student who carried out a fatal shooting at an American naval base, as it seeks to repair its image of being an exporter of Islamic extremism.

The Saudi military student reportedly condemned the US as a “nation of evil” before going on a rampage Friday at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida, killing three people and wounding eight.

The shooting marks a setback in the kingdom’s efforts to shrug off its longstanding reputation for promoting religious extremism after the September 11, 2001, attacks in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis.

The hashtag “Saudis stand with America” gained traction on social media after King Salman telephoned US President Donald Trump to denounce the shooting as “heinous” and pledge cooperation with American officials to investigate the incident.

The king added in the phone call on Friday that the shooter, who was gunned down by police, “does not represent the Saudi people,” a sentiment echoed by other officials.

Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman, right, talks with David Schenker, left, assistant secretary of Near Eastern affairs, as he leaves the State Department in Washington, August 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

“Like many other Saudi military personnel, I was trained in a US military base, and we used that valuable training to fight side by side with our American allies against terrorism and other threats,” Prince Khalid bin Salman, the king’s younger son and the deputy defense minister, said on Twitter.

“A large number of Saudi graduates of the Naval Air Station in Pensacola moved on to serve with their US counterparts in battlefronts around the world, helping to safeguard the regional and global security. (The) tragic event is strongly condemned by everyone in Saudi Arabia.”

Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs, also expressed his “deepest sympathies and heartfelt condolences” over the shooting.

‘Owe a debt’

The incident is unlikely to affect Washington’s close relations with Riyadh, with both governments seeking military and diplomatic cooperation to counter Shiite power Iran.

But Florida Governor Ron DeSantis suggested Riyadh should offer compensation to the victims.

“The government of Saudi Arabia needs to make things better for these victims, and I think they’re going to owe a debt here given that this is one of their individuals,” DeSantis told US media.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks to press following a deadly shooting at the Pensacola Naval Air Base on December 6, 2019 in Pensacola, Florida. (Josh Brasted/Getty Images/AFP)

Saudis citizens strongly rejected the view on social media, with one Twitter use saying: “The government of Saudi Arabia is not responsible for every single individual with a Saudi passport.”

Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has sought to project a moderate image of his austere kingdom, often associated in the West with jihadist ideology.

Prince Mohammed has promoted what observers call a de-emphasis on religion as he pursues a sweeping modernization drive that has allowed mixed-gender music concerts and ended decades-long bans on cinemas and women drivers.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on September 18, 2019. (Mandel Ngan/Pool Photo via AP)

Saudi Arabia, which is home to Islam’s holiest sites in Mecca and Medina and where the practice of other religions is banned, has hosted a flurry of representatives of various Christian traditions in recent months.

But the self-styled reformer has also faced global criticism for the kingdom’s poor human rights record, including the jailing of multiple women activists, clerics and journalists.

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