On May 17 the US Senate approved the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA). This bill essentially accuses Saudi Arabia of involvement in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The proposal would provide US citizens «with the broadest possible basis… to seek relief against persons, entities, and foreign countries… that have provided material support, directly or indirectly, to foreign organizations or persons that engage in terrorist activities against the United States».
If the bill is passed by the House of Representatives and signed by the president, it will eliminate the sovereign immunity protections enjoyed by the members of the al-Saud family, and US courts will be able to demand compensation from that kingdom for the families of those killed in the terrorist attacks on New York’s Twin Towers. (According to the official US version of that event, 15 of the 19 terrorists who carried out the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks were Saudi nationals).
The act was sponsored by Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer and his Republican colleague John Cornyn. The Senate’s decision hinged on testimony obtained from Zacarias Moussaoui, who has been accused of helping to plot the September terrorist attacks and is currently being held in a US prison in Colorado. Moussaoui claimed that King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Princes Bandar bin Sultan and Turki bin Faisal were some of the members of the royal family who supported al-Qaeda.
A ruling handed down by a US District Court in New York on March 16 set an amount for prospective compensation from Iran, ordering the Islamic Republic to pay $10.5 billion to the victims of the terrorist attacks.
The US Senate’s decision followed an announcement by Saudi officials that the kingdom might sell the US securities that it owns. The US bonds purchased by the Saudi treasury are estimated to be worth $116.8 billion. And the total value of the US assets owned by both the state as well as individuals in that country – primarily those connected to the royal family – comes to $750 billion.
Naturally a sell-off of more than $100 billion in US securities would deal a painful blow to the US economy. However, an even more important factor is that this would make Riyadh significantly less dependent on Washington. JASTA would allow the US Treasury to place a freeze on all transactions involving US securities and Saudi assets within US borders. Another aspect of the problem is that if the Saudis decide to sell their US assets, they will try to convert them into dollars, and all dollar transactions are controlled by the US Treasury. Washington used this against Tehran in 2010, imposing «crippling sanctions» on Iran’s economy.
Cracks were already appearing in the US-Saudi alliance back in 2005 when the Americans were occupying Iraq and abetted the rise to power in Baghdad of a coalition of Shiite parties with close ties to Iran. Then, in the fall of 2013, the US redoubled its efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem. The closure of Iran’s nuclear program and gradual lifting of sanctions from that country has drawn the ire of the Saudi elite, for whom Iran is still the biggest enemy in the region.
The vote in the US Senate approving the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, as well as Barack Obama’s March interview in the Atlantic that was published this spring, can be viewed as a gradual withdrawal from Washington’s strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia.
When it was created, the US-Saudi alliance served the two countries’ mutual interests. Those included combating Soviet influence in the Middle East, countering the forces of secular Arab nationalism (Gamal Abdel Nasser’s government in Egypt and the Baathists in Syria and Iraq), and ensuring an uninterrupted flow of oil into the US economy. None of these factors retains its former significance, including America’s reduced dependence on oil imports from the Middle East (the US currently extracts nearly nine million barrels of shale oil per day, enough to supply half of America’s daily oil needs).
The US senators’ support for the JASTA bill is a sign that Washington is stepping up the pressure on Riyadh. It is possible that certain ranks of the American elite are growing increasingly concerned that the kingdom might begin to pursue a more independent political line. The latest shuffling of top Saudi policy makers, as well as the economic plans of Prince Mohammed bin Salman, indicate that this is more than just a theoretical possibility.