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Roxanne Perugino

US-Saudi relations threatened by 'Sponsors of Terrorism' bill

An Obama veto on the Act could still be overturned by the Senate [Getty]

Date of publication: 21 September, 2016

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Comment: US-Saudi tensions may worsen, if changes to sovereign immunity law allow families of 9/11 victims to sue the government of Saudi Arabia, writes Roxanne Perugino
The recent passage of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), in both the House and the Senate, allowing family members of 9/11 victims to sue the government of Saudi Arabia, has the potential to cause further damage to the tense US-Saudi relationship, and hamper the President's ability to conduct foreign policy.

Consequences of changing sovereign immunity

This legislation would change long standing international sovereign immunity law, which prevents governments and their officials from being sued in other countries for their official conduct, by allowing US district courts to hear cases related to attacks carried out by designated terrorist organisations on US soil with support from other countries.

Currently only countries designated as state sponsors of terrorism - Iran, Sudan and Syria - can be sued in US courts by US victims of terrorist attacks. Although not designated a state sponsor of terrorism, many members of Congress believe that Saudi Arabia should be held responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Saudi Arabia has long denied any role in the 9/11 attacks but victims' families have repeatedly tried to bring the matter to court. Their efforts have been unsuccessful because Saudi Arabia invoked legal immunity allowed under the current sovereign immunity law.

The legislation also could lead to retaliatory action against the US. For example, in countries such as Pakistan and Yemen, where loss of life has occurred due to US drone strikes, (or other US military action against legitimate military targets), the US government and its officials judged to be responsible for these actions could be exposed to prosecution and lawsuits.

Saudi Arabia has long denied any role in the 9/11 attacks but victims' families have repeatedly tried to bring the matter to court

Additionally, some European courts have shown an interest in lawsuits against the US due to its counterterrorism efforts, and against Israel for its policies and actions in the West Bank and Gaza, which have led to Palestinian deaths. 

Veto and congressional override look likely

President Obama has said he will veto the bill because of the foreign policy implications. A two-thirds vote in the Senate and in the House is needed to override the President's veto.   

A presidential veto, however, presents a delicate political dilemma for the President. The bill seeks justice for the victims of the worst terrorist attack against the US, and thus is difficult to risk the perception of denying justice to the 9/11 families.

However, President Obama sincerely believes the bill could strain already tense relations with a key Gulf ally. US-Saudi relations have been strained in recent months as a result of the Iran nuclear agreement and the Saudi military action in Yemen. The President has no desire to further exacerbate these tensions. 

President Obama has said he will veto the bill because of the foreign policy implications

Saudi Arabia has threated to sell off $750 billion of US assets in retaliation if the bill is enacted into law, but it is questionable if the Kingdom would follow through on this threat. To do so would cause disruption in the global market.  

While there may be some members who share the President's view of the potentially harmful impact on US foreign policy, overwhelming congressional support negates these concerns. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Senator for New York Charles Schumer - the presumptive Democratic leader should the Democrats win the Senate – both support the bill.

Vetoing the legislation could very well jeopardise President Obama's relationship with Democrats whose support he will need in the upcoming lame duck session following the November elections. The consensus is that the President will veto the bill and that Congress has the required two-thirds majority to override the veto.

US-Saudi relations likely to worsen

If as expected the override stands, the already strained US-Saudi relationship is likely to worsen. The Obama Administration believes it needs Saudi cooperation on a number of issues, but primarily in the fight against IS.

JASTA presents the risk of economic retaliation between the US and Saudi Arabia further damaging the relationship

Suing the Saudi government in US courts may not be in the best interest of the US for all the reasons stated above and particularly when there is no proof that the Saudi government is actually guilty of providing direct support to the 9/11 terrorists.

The reality is that the US needs Saudi Arabia, not only to combat IS but also to resolve the conflicts in Syria and Yemen and contain Iranian hegemony. Foreign policy experts contend the US would face far greater challenges in dealing with regional issues, and in particular with Turkey and Russia whose interests in Syria, for example, differ from those of the United States. 

Secondly, JASTA presents the risk of economic retaliation between the US and Saudi Arabia further damaging the relationship. Finally, even if the congressional veto override were to fail, Saudi Arabia will still see the bill as another point of friction in its relationship with the US. It will be up to the next president to address these growing tensions.


Roxanne Perugino is a Legislative Policy Analyst at the Arab Center Washington DC.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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