Saudis bristle over new 9/11 law — but Saudi government remains silent
A U.S. law allowing lawsuits against Saudi Arabia over the Sept. 11 attacks met a stony silence from Riyadh on Thursday but some Saudis bristled, saying the kingdom could curb business and security ties in response to an ally’s perceived affront.
The Senate and House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday to approve legislation that will allow the families of those who died in the 2001 attacks in New York to seek damages from the Saudi government.
Riyadh has always dismissed suspicions that it backed the attackers, who killed nearly 3,000 people under the banner of Islamist militant group al Qaeda. Fifteen out of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals.
The Saudi government financed an extensive lobbying campaign against the “Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act”, or JASTA, in the run-up to the vote, and warned it would undermine the principle of sovereign immunity.
But Saudi officials stopped short of threatening any retaliation if the law was passed. The long-standing alliance between the kingdom and the United States is one of the cornerstones of the Middle East’s politics, security and trade, and in their reactions on Thursday some Saudis said JASTA would jeopardize what they see as an interdependent relationship.
“What would happen if Saudi Arabia froze its cooperation with the United States with regards to counter-terrorism as a response to JASTA?” Salman al-Dosary, editor-in-chief of the pan-Arab, Saudi-owned Al Sharq al-Awsat newspaper, wrote on Twitter.
Another Saudi national referred to a widely held belief in the region that the United States was after the kingdom’s oil wealth. The law was “the last chance (for the U.S.) to bleed out the resources of our good nation,” wrote Abdullah Medallah on Twitter.
There was no official reaction from Saudi Arabia, and in the short-term, few expect little more reaction than a curt statement of disapproval from Riyadh.
Some analysts argue the Al Saud ruling family will interpret the move as political expedience by lawmakers in a U.S. election season and that the chances of a successful lawsuit are uncertain at best.
But the measure does nothing to ease long-standing friction in the alliance: President Barack Obama, who had vetoed JASTA but was overridden by Congress, is increasingly seen by the kingdom and fellow Gulf Arab as favoring their bitter rival Iran, a charge Washington denies, and differs with Riyadh over Syria and other Arab crises.
“This bill reflects an anti-Saudi campaign. It is time to see less of America in our midst,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political scientist in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Some analysts have speculated that Riyadh could retaliate by curbing U.S. trade with the biggest Arab economy or restrict cooperation on security, a crucial relationship for U.S. counter-terrorism and for peace efforts in Arab conflicts.
Political Theodore Karasik of Gulf State Analytics wrote on al Arabiya website that JASTA would “ignite a firestorm of legal warfare that will directly undermine political relationships at a time when robust ties to fight terrorism is required.”
He said the measure could also disrupt sweeping economic reforms meant to boost the private sector and foreign investment and wean the kingdom off oil dependence.
The Saudi riyal fell against the U.S. dollar in the forward foreign exchange market on Thursday after the bill was passed.
Some analysts speculated that bilateral trade and investment could be hurt. The kingdom owns $96.5 billion of U.S. Treasury bonds, and is believed to hold at least that sum in other U.S. assets and bank accounts.
(Additional reporting by Stanley Carvalho, Davide Barbuscia, Celine Aswad, Andrew Torchia and Tom Arnold; Writing by William Maclean; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)