JASTA: Another Test for U.S.-Saudi Relations

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Views from the Region

The United States Congress has, for the first time in Barack Obama’s presidency, overridden a veto to open the way to a number of potential lawsuits by U.S. citizens against foreign governments. The law in question, the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), was designed to allow U.S. citizens to sue the Saudi government and individuals for their alleged role in the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. The response on the part of the Saudis has been swift, but restrained. Other countries in the region, including Qatar, Egypt, and Turkey have also expressed dismay at the passing of the law and urged Congress to reconsider. With the controversial bill now a law, regional observers and dailies are beginning to coming to terms with the implications of this new twist in U.S.-Saudi relations.

Judging by a recent editorial by the National staff, many of the regional dailies and observers see this turn of events as deeply worrying, but not wholly unforeseen, especially considering what some believe to be a “diplomatic drift” on the part of the United States: “It will be seen as in keeping with the administration’s apparent diplomatic drift away from its old allies towards Iran, whose ambitions across the region, it is felt, have been immeasurably bolstered by the US decision to spearhead the lifting of international sanctions on the country. It will probably not result in a significant disruption of investment ties – which for the moment represent an important part of Saudi Arabia’s diversification plan – but the current trend towards looking eastward, rather than to the West, for investment opportunities and big-ticket procurement and infrastructure projects, will intensify. Finally it will hasten polarization in the Middle East, with the Gulf states especially no longer feeling that they are comfortable with life under a steadily more inconsistent US strategic umbrella, and seeking out instead new big-power alliances and/or unilateral solutions to perceived threats.”

Gulf News’s Abdullah Al Shayji is critical of the new law, and even though he is optimistic about the robustness of U.S.-Saudi relations, he fears that the relationship might be weighed down by recent developments: “It is ironic how the plight of families of 9/11 victims is being politicized by a lame-duck Congress, to a lame-duck president, without paying any regard to the huge mess that will result from the implementation of the new law as far as international relations are concerned and the ensuing chaos by way of retaliatory lawsuits filed by relatives of individuals killed by the US through war, aggressions, torture and even drone attacks that have claimed the lives of innocent civilians in many countries….This is a reckless move by the Congress at the height of election season, in which it is champion[ing] citizens’ rights for recourse, albeit wrongly and with dangerous and unprecedented consequences….Clearly there won’t be a divorce. Too much has been invested in this relationship over the last eight decades. The relationship has endured ebbs and flows and these seemingly ‘irreconcilable’ differences will be ironed out, but the scars will leave indelible marks on a relationship which is yet to achieve its full potential.”

In an op-ed for the Jordan Times, James Zogby characterizes the law as “irresponsible and dangerous,” and likely to weaken the U.S.-Arab relationship: “Congress’ vote to override President Barack Obama’s veto of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) was both embarrassing and irresponsible. The bill, known as JASTA, amends the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, allowing US citizens to sue foreign governments and entities for damages resulting from acts of terrorism committed on US soil on or after September 11, 2001.Clearly directed at the government of Saudi Arabia, JASTA has caused enormous concern and not only in that country….Here is what might happen now.  The tort lawyers who “represent” the families will try to shop around for a friendly jurisdiction in which to file their case….Along the way, both the Saudi government and the families will pay millions in legal fees; more damage will be done to the US-Arab relationship; and in the end, no one will benefit except the lawyers, themselves. The problem is that the members of Congress who created this heartbreaking mess for the families, the US and the US-Arab relationship will most likely not be held accountable or feel responsible for what they have done.”

There are some, including The Peninsula’s Khalid Al-Shafi,  who suspect that the new law is intended to be leverage against the Saudi kingdom and the Gulf in general: “The timing of the bill raises questions: why is it being passed now after 15 years?; whether or not it is a kind of blackmailing- seeking more concessions?; and would it be a dangerous precedent for international law and international relations if implemented?…Unfortunately the JASTA bill seems to be an open blackmail or threat to Muslim countries, being supported by all officials in the US. An official from the Democratic Party pointed out that President Obama did not pressurize the members of Congress to not override his Veto….It is … questionable whether this stance has to do with the US presidential election or if there is real change in the US strategic priorities. However, whatever changes have happened, we are not weak to the extent that we can be played with….Are we ready to reconsider our policies and relations in a way that responds to our strategic interests. The whole issue is mainly and finally in the hands of the GCC leaders, and I have no doubt that they know every detail and how to challenge them.”

Despite the challenges this law may present to the Saudi government and individuals associated with the royal family, Abdulrahman Al-Rashed notes in a recent op-ed on Asharq Alawsat that the U.S.-Saudi relationship should continue to remain strong, and that the Saudis will be able to overcome this difficult moment: “[S]hortsighted people ask the kingdom to forgo the U.S. dollar, failing to notice that China- a developing wealthy country with far less fervor for the U.S.- still uses the dollar when doing business, in addition to investing its surpluses in the U.S. As for those holding malicious intentions for the kingdom, they promote for a Saudi-U.S. breakup, hoping that Saudi Arabia walks down the same road as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Iran’s Khomeini and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi– U.S.-backed leaders who later impetuously defied international conventions, and had their countries descend into chaos. The Gulf kingdom is not naïve nor is it a politically inexperienced state to foolishly toss aside a well-established alliance that is decades old….Saudi Arabia – with its legal and political capacities, added to the great list of ties bound by mutual interest within U.S. borders- will mount the tough challenge at hand.

Tariq A. Al Maeena is already considering the impact that the law will have on the United States, especially since it has such a large military and diplomatic footprint around the world: “Jasta is a law now and it is interesting that other countries have begun opening their dossiers on crimes of terrorism acted against them and will most likely fashion similar statutes in their books very soon. While the Saudis have proven time and again that there was no government involvement in the 9/11 attacks, other countries may realize that a jewel has fallen into their laps. The Iraqis, for example, can sue the US for their entire gross national product to compensate for the colossal damage and misery caused to the country by US invasion….The Afghans could raise a similar lawsuit against the US, arguing that they had nothing to do with 9/11 and thus there was no justification of the thousands of civilian deaths by bombs and drones. The Palestinians can also take the US to court for providing armaments to the Israelis, armaments used to bomb, slaughter and kill entire communities, leaving behind an inexcusable death toll….The Libyans, Syrians and others may all join the bandwagon, leaving the US in a very precarious situation.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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