US Sept 11 law exasperates Saudis, govt silent

Analyst says Saudi-US relations will likely be impacted if lawsuits proceed against Saudi Arabia over the 9/11 attacks.
Protesters participating in a rally against US President Barack Obama's plan to veto the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), in front of the White House in Washington, DC, on Sept 20, 2016.
Protesters participating in a rally against US President Barack Obama's plan to veto the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), in front of the White House in Washington, DC, on Sept 20, 2016.PHOTO: EPA

RIYADH/DUBAI (REUTERS)- A US law allowing lawsuits against Saudi Arabia over the Sept 11 attacks met a stony silence from Riyadh on Thursday (Sept 29) 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 jeopardise 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 US) to bleed out the resources of our good nation," wrote Abdullah Medallah on Twitter.

POLITICAL EXPEDIENCE

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 US 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 favouring 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).

SECURITY

Some analysts have speculated that Riyadh could retaliate by curbing US trade with the biggest Arab economy or restrict cooperation on security, a crucial relationship for US counter-terrorism and for peace efforts in Arab conflicts.

Political analyst Theodore Karasik of Gulf State Analytics wrote on the 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 US 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 US$96.5 billion (S$131.5 billion) of US Treasury bonds, and is believed to hold at least that sum in other US assets and bank accounts.