Bill to allow 9/11 lawsuits strains US-Saudi relations

Days ahead of a US-GCC summit in Riyadh on regional security cooperation, a fight within the US government over a bill that would expose Saudi Arabia to lawsuits related to 9/11 has spilled into public view.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir, shake hands after speaking to the media together at King Salman Regional Air Base in Riyadh in January. Barack Obama's visit to Riyadh this week is at risk of being overshadowed by a draft bill that could expose Saudi Arabia to legal action over 9/11. (AP Photo)
US Secretary of State John Kerry and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir, shake hands after speaking to the media together at King Salman Regional Air Base in Riyadh in January. Barack Obama's visit to Riyadh this week is at risk of being overshadowed by a draft bill that could expose Saudi Arabia to legal action over 9/11. (AP Photo)

Abu Dhabi // Days ahead of a US-GCC summit in Riyadh on regional security cooperation, a fight within the US government over a bill that would expose Saudi Arabia to lawsuits related to 9/11 has spilled into public view.

The discord threatens to undermine Barack Obama’s talks with Gulf leaders — which begin on Thursday — and contribute to an increasingly strained relationship with Saudi Arabia.

The draft law co-sponsored by senior senators from both the Republican and Democratic parties was reintroduced on Thursday, and appears to have more support than during two previous attempts to pass the bill. It would allow countries to be held liable in US courts for acts of terrorism carried out on American soil.

The law would in effect end the immunity held by countries under the 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) — which also implicitly protects American assets abroad — and allow long-standing lawsuits by the families of 9/11 victims who claim Saudi officials were complicit in the attacks to go forward.

As early as 2003, Riyadh asked for the redacted pages to be made public. “We want to see [the full report] for two reasons,” former Saudi foreign minister Saud Al Faisal told CNN in 2003. “If there are accusations against Saudi Arabia, we want to respond to [them], because we know we are clear of any accusations. But if there are any information about possible supporters of terrorists, we want to know about them to take care of the situation.” But both the George W Bush and Obama administrations refused, citing intelligence concerns.

If the bill is passed, the classified 28-page section in Washington’s official 9/11 Commission report dealing with foreign state involvement in the plot would also come to light in court.

While the commission ruled out the involvement of the Saudi government, it has been widely speculated that lower-level officials may have played a role in helping finance the hijackers.

In response to the reintroduction of the bill, Saudi foreign minister Adel Al Jubeir warned members of congress last month that Riyadh would have to liquidate up to US$750 billion (Dh2.75 trillion) in US assets that could potentially be frozen by courts, the New York Times reported on Friday. US administration officials have scrambled to prevent the bill’s passage by lobbying congress and warning of the security and economic fallout, the Times reported.

Intelligence sharing and counter-terrorism cooperation are key aspects of the relationship that many in congress still recognise as vital, said Fahad Nazer, an analyst of Saudi affairs at JTG Inc.

“I think it’s important to keep in mind that over the past month, three different congressional delegations headed by Senators Lindsey Graham, Ben Cardin and House Speaker Paul Ryan have visited Saudi Arabia and met with senior leaders including King Salman and Deputy Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman,” he said. “I also think that the recent transfer of nine Yemeni nationals who had been held at the naval detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to Saudi Arabia highlights the wide scope of cooperation between the two countries.”

Despite the potentially dire consequences, however, it is clear that both Riyadh and the US congress are unlikely or unable to follow through on their threats — though the issue will heighten already frayed relations, and is a symptom of increasingly public criticism of Washington’s longtime ally. In addition to the immunities bill, a pair of senators from each party have put forward a joint resolution that would place strict conditions on weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, over concerns about civilian deaths in Yemen.

On the US side, the emotive issue of September 11 is an effective political tool during an election year, especially one where Republicans are largely running on what they claim is Mr Obama’s weak strategy against ISIL extremists. For Democrats, running against the bill could be an exploitable liability and is also an important issue for their constituents, especially in the New York area.

Administration officials have warned that ending the immunity held by countries would pave the way for lawsuits against the US across the globe, in places where it has engaged in military action where civilians were killed.

US secretary of state John Kerry told a senate committee that the bill would “expose the United States of America to lawsuits and take away our sovereign immunity and create a terrible precedent”.

There is minuscule political risk for supporters of the bill, and it is unlikely to actually trigger a diplomatic and economic crisis, as Mr Obama is almost guaranteed to veto the bill on national security grounds. The White House has not confirmed that he will veto.

For the Saudis, their economic threats are also unlikely to be carried out, though US officials have been briefing members of congress about the consequences if they are, the Times reported.

“They are not in a position to liquidate their assets in the US,” a western diplomat said.

Technically, it could be done if Riyadh decides to un-peg the Saudi riyal from the US dollar, which would be required if it did not maintain a minimum level of dollar reserves. But then the kingdom would need enough dollars to cover purchases of imports. The economic repercussions for Saudi could be immense.

The issue is likely to be raised during Mr Obama’s talks with King Salman on Wednesday and summit with GCC leaders the next day.

The congressional issues will add to an already frosty air between the US president and Gulf leaders who view him as dangerously naive about Iranian intentions in the region and his commitment to their security from Tehran’s threat. The perception that elements of the US government want to impose financial penalties on Riyadh as sanctions are lifted on Tehran will not help mitigate these concerns.

Mr Obama and US defence secretary Ash Carter, who is also meeting Gulf counterparts, will ask for greater cooperation and resources in the fight against ISIL in Iraq and Syria. Gulf leaders will seek assurances of their own on a number of fronts.

On the congressional bills issue at least, Mr Obama is likely to guarantee that the US-Gulf alliance is too important to sacrifice.

tkhan@thenational.ae

Published: April 18, 2016 04:00 AM

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