Saudi Arabia’s response to legislation permitting the families of 9/11 victims to sue the Kingdom for compensation, which US President Barack Obama has characterized as setting a “dangerous precedent”, has been diplomatically low-key.
“The erosion of sovereign immunity will have a negative impact on all nations, including the United States,” warned a statement from the Foreign Ministry which appealed for a correction to avoid “unintended consequences.” No doubt discussions behind closed doors are less temperate.
The law has been condemned by the EU, France, Holland and almost all of the Kingdom’s regional allies including Egypt, Turkey, the UAE and Bahrain.
“Populist legislation in the JASTA case prevailed over rationalism, which is required in all matters of international law and investment risks,” tweeted the UAE’s Minister of State Dr. Anwar Gargash while referring to the repercussions as “serious and enduring.”
Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed described the law as “an arrow launched by the US Congress at its own country.” “Are there no rational people among you,” he asked?
Lawmakers rationalized alright! They rationalized that with elections on the horizon voting against the wishes of 9/11 families, never mind that they’ve already received whopping payouts, would not be well received by the voting public.
Put simply, they poked the president in the eye by overturning his veto and merrily dented US-Saudi relations for the sake of their own careers.
Those consequences, whether intentional or unintentional, have yet to be spelled out but common sense tells us that Saudi and Gulf investors as well as Sovereign Wealth Funds will no longer view the United States as a safe place for their money and may choose to liquidate their assets in order to repatriate funds.
Gulf States invariably stand shoulder to shoulder when one is targeted and, in any event, the judicial door is now open to any US citizens to sue any country including GCC member states.
Saudi’s Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir earlier warned that his country might be obliged to withdraw its investments if they were perceived to be in jeopardy. Some American analysts have failed to take his words seriously, arguing that won’t happen because Saudi assets would have to be sold quickly at knock down prices to avoid being frozen during litigation’s duration.
Let’s face it a secure investment environment isn’t one where any Tom, Dick or Nancy can haul a state before the courts to be held accountable for the actions of its citizens.
This is a world first, which some countries may adopt on the grounds of reciprocity and would have every right to do so. And it is this potential boomerang effect which worries Obama most of all. US officials and service personnel abroad would be particularly vulnerable and so would US assets abroad.
Most legal experts are of the opinion that plaintiffs would be on the losing end of any such cases. Their lawyers would have to prove that a country “knowingly or recklessly” contributed “material support or resources, directly or indirectly, to persons or organizations that pose a significant risk of committing acts of terrorism that threaten the security of nationals of the United States or the national security, foreign policy, or economy of the United States….”
Given that the Kingdom was exonerated from any involvement in the attacks by the 9/11 Commission and stripped Osama Bin Laden of his Saudi nationality, I would suspect that most judges will be inclined to throw such cases out.
But there will be lawyers and judges seeking fame who’ll go the distance. As columnist Juan Cole points out, “Our judges are not Middle East experts and most of them couldn’t tell you the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite or a terrorist and a Salafi.”
Just days after Obama’s veto was overridden, the claimants are queuing to lodge their claims. The first lawsuit claiming Saudi provided material support to Al-Qaeda has been filed by Stephanie Ross DeSimone, the widow of a naval commander; others are set to be lodged this week.
Her claim is ridiculous when Al-Qaeda’s number one enemy was the Saudi government which the terrorists blamed for the presence of US military personnel on Saudi soil.
Ms DeSimone needs a history lesson. Al-Qaeda was born out of so-called ‘Afghan Arabs’ recruited and trained by the CIA to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s. Bin Laden answered the call. Between 1991 and 1996, Osama Bin Laden lived in Sudan and when he was expelled he chartered a plane not to his country of birth, but to Kabul.
As Le Figaro reported on Oct. 21, 2001, just two months before the attacks a CIA agent visited him in an American hospital. An article on the NBC website headed “Bin Laden comes home to roost” penned by Michael Moran delves into Bin Laden’s ties to the CIA.
It appears some members of Congress who voted in favor of JASTA are getting cold feet; they’re passing the buck to the White House for not coherently laying out the implications. Some would like to see the law revisited once the presidential election is over. But how easy will that be once the courts have got their hooks into it is yet to be seen.
Linda S. Heard is an award-winning British political columnist and guest television commentator with a focus on the Middle East.