The escalation in tensions between the United States (US) and Saudi Arabia have played out in a tangible way this past week with US President Barack Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia to meet with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) partners. Interestingly enough, and as noted elsewhere, in spite of pressing and tangible disagreements, such as the Iran nuclear deal and both countries’ involvement in Yemen, the current spat returns to 9/11 as the US congress reviews a bill. The bill in question is a bipartisan effort that aims to remove obstacles to pursuing legal action against national governments involved in supporting acts of terror against US citizens.
Congress continues to debate the familiarly termed 9/11 bill, which centers on the ability of US citizens to hold nations accountable in US courts for attacks on national soil. While it is not the actual bill that poses a threat to Saudi nationals, it is possible that Saudi assets could be frozen if investigations commenced. In response to the bill’s passing, Saudi Arabia has threatened to withdraw its 750 billion USD from Treasury securities and other US-based assets if the bill goes through.
A sticking point of this saga is the 9/11 commission report, of which 28 pages remain classified, believed by some to hold incriminating information on Saudi involvement. The 28 pages are supposedly ready for possible release amidst growing pressure in the US, adding a level of instability to the discussion. It is important to note that while 9/11 sparked changes in how the US dealt with the threat and impact of terror activity, the content of the ‘Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act’ (JASTA) bill was not previously broached, denoting implications from its content. President Obama received a rather frosty welcome in Saudi Arabia this past week, however, meetings showed a drive for ongoing, albeit cautious collaboration.
First, the bill states that ‘sovereign immunity’ is not valid when a country is proven to have supported a terrorist attack in which Americans were killed within US borders. In addition, the JASTA amends the anti-terrorism act of 1991 (ATA), adding the possibility that foreign funders of groups such as Al-Qaeda can be held responsible in US courts. Amidst Obama’s statements that he would veto the bill, co-sponsor of the bill, Sen. Lindsay Graham, recently called for changes that would raise the barriers to an individual’s ability to sue. A prime example Graham gave is the US’s support of the PKK’s ‘cousin’, the YPG Kurds in their fight against Daesh, or the so-called Islamic State. If the YPG supported an attack in Turkey, ‘I don’t want to be held liable’, said Graham.
Financial risks if the bill, as it stands, passed and Saudi Arabia withdrew funds, would be minimal, as 750 billion USD amounts to approximately 1% of the US’ total assets. The issue isn’t that Saudi Arabia could be ‘deemed responsible’ for 9/11, rather, there is a fear that assets could be frozen as cases are tried in lengthy court proceedings.
At the time of writing, it seems likely that the bill will be reworded to reflect the growing concerns of its flagrant invitation of risk to US interests. The most obvious is the risk that other countries could retaliate with similar measures, and the untouchable nature of US-foreign relationships would be challenged. This is the principal example President Obama uses when explaining why he believes this bill is a dangerous precedent, and plans for a veto are on the table.
The mere discussion of the bill as it progresses through the US system has acted as a catalyst to raise awareness about the waning deferential relationship that exists between the US and Saudi Arabia, and the sensitivity of information about 9/11 that is still coming to light. The publishing of the 28 pages would surely aggravate the process.
In addition, the discussion of the bill also acts as deterrence against those who may use loopholes to support acts of violence against American individuals or interests without the fear of accountability. Merely by proposing measures that remove immunity for those that commit heinous acts, the evasive operational capability of a would-be terror plot is eroded.
More severe than a Saudi withdrawal of 750 billion USD from US assets would the impact to the two countries’ relationship, and the implications in the region and beyond. Some sources show that this move would serve to harm the unpredictable Saudi economy as opposed to that of the US. While Obama attempts to squash the bill’s validity and likelihood of passing in the next weeks, Saudi Arabia is engaging in textbook posturing to maintain the strength of its role in the region vis–à–vis its allies, as well as Iran. With so many interlinked areas of interest and action, it is unlikely that either the Saudis or the US will instigate a deeper fracturing of ties. Nevertheless, the relationship could face further tensions if the 28 pages are released from the 9/11 commission report, showing firm links to Saudi Arabia.
Given the most recent developments, it seems likely that the bill will be adjusted to reflect the concerns of Obama and other lawmakers. This also shows a level of deference that will likely upset the bill’s proponents, but maintain a level of strained complacency in the short to mid-term future between the two powerhouses. The question that remains to be seen is whether or not President Obama would veto an altered bill that adequately address his and others’ concerns, and whether or not Saudi Arabia would follow through with the asset withdrawal plan, even with a downgraded threat of legal action against some of the kingdom’s interests or nationals.