US Senate passed legislation on May 17 that would allow families of Sept. 11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia for its alleged involvement in the terrorist strikes.
Fifteen out of the nineteen hijackers in 2001 were Saudi citizens. The approval is setting up a potential showdown with the White House, which has threatened a veto. The bill passed on a voice vote, a rare feat in the divided chamber, especially for a controversial issue. The Justice against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) bill was sponsored by Democrat Senator Chuck Schumer of New York and Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas and is expected to be passed by the House of Representatives soon.
The bill has been approved by a large number of the Democratic Senate members, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, putting them at odds with the Obama administration to indicate the division inside the Democratic Party.
A 1976 law in force gives foreign nations some immunity from lawsuits in US courts. The Senate bill carves out an exception to the law if foreign countries are found culpable for terrorist attacks that kill American citizens within the United States. If it were in force, the legislation could clear a path for the role of the Saudi government to be examined in the Sept. 11 suits.
The bill represents a great risk for the US-Saudi relations and the Saudi investments in the United States. It would change long standing international law regarding sovereign immunity and make the US vulnerable in other court systems around the world. In a move intended to address some White House concerns, the bill’s sponsors included a provision that would allow the Attorney General to put a hold on individual court cases if the administration can show that it is negotiating with the defendant government to resolve the claims.
The President has decided to veto the bill. «The President of the United States continues to harbor serious concerns that this legislation would make the United States vulnerable in other court systems around the world», said White House spokesman Josh Earnest. «It could put the United States, and our taxpayers, and our service members and our diplomats at significant risk, if other countries were to adopt a similar law», he added.
The US Congress could challenge and override the presidential veto from Obama’s administration if it decided to object the bill and return it to the Congress. «I think we easily get the two-thirds override if the president should veto», said Senator Schumer.
The US-Saudi Arabia relations have been strained of late – partly the result of regional unrest and frustration over the legislative efforts in question. In March, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir warned lawmakers that it would sell $750 billion of US assets, including Treasury securities, should the bill become law.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration is considering whether to declassify 28 pages of the 2002 congressional report – the portion of the lawmakers’ investigation that cited some evidence that Saudi government officials and other Saudi citizens living in the United States had a hand in the terrorist plot.
Recently the National Archives posted a separate document on its website that appears to offer a glimpse at the classified pages.
The publication is a series of memos written by Sept. 11 commission staff members compiling numerous possible connections between the hijackers and Saudis in the United States.
These events will inevitably deteriorate the relationship further. It makes Saudi Arabia gradually move away from the US orbit of influence striking deals with other countries. In April, Saudi Arabia and Egypt announced the construction of a bridge which will connect the Sinai Peninsula with the Arabian Peninsula for the first time. The bridge will span between 7 to 10 kilometers (about four to six miles) and cross the Red Sea south of the Straits of Tiran. The project will generate billions of dollars in annual revenue, and the construction will create thousands of jobs for Egyptian workers. The deal had been preceded by handing over Tiran and Sanafir – the disputed islands under Cairo’s control – to Saudi Arabia.
The two large Arab states with the long history of being close US allies are forging an alliance dissatisfied with Washington’s Middle East policy. Despite the existing differences over Syria, Saudi Arabia is also set on building pragmatic relations with Moscow. Last October, Russian President Vladimir Putin met Sheikh Mohammed bin Salman, a son of the Saudi king, to discuss the prospects for cooperation. Moscow hosted a joint Russian-Saudi Business Forum at the end of the last year. A delegation from the Consultative Assembly of Saudi Arabia visited Moscow this February to discuss regional and bilateral problems and ways to boost relations. «Saudi Arabia’s warming ties with Russia surely speak of the waning regional influence of the US, with which the kingdom has been closely allied for 70 years», writes David Gardner, an international affairs editor at the Financial Times.
Russia and Saudi Arabia are quite capable of working well together. The Middle East landscape is changing with the US regional policy failing. The United States is losing old friends against the background of Russia’s growing influence. Other actors change their policies. New alliances are being formed. The region is being reshaped. It will never be the same. The Senate has just undermined US position in the Middle East. There is a slim chance the legislation could be rejected by the House. And there is a big chance a presidential veto could be overridden, if imposed. On May 17 the damage to the US-Saudi relationship and America influence in the Middle East was done and there is no way to repair it.