By Hamad Al Thunayyan
Rai Insights Contributor
Washington D.C.: The Saudi-U.S. Relations hit another low this week when Congress rejected the White House veto on the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA). While this law permits the families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia, it additionally makes every foreign government susceptible to lawsuits in U.S. courts.
The good news is some Congressmen acknowledged that JASTA has some “unintended consequences,” and they will work with the White House to trim the law. Under worst case scenario, JASTA gives the executive branch leverage to halt the lawsuit in court if it shows that a “good faith” negotiated settlement with the foreign government was taking place. The terrible news is the political ramifications of JASTA are significant for Riyadh.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states along with the Arab League condemned the passing of JASTA as it violates international law. The European Union is absolutely against this law as it opens the entryway for different governments to reciprocate. In a letter to the U.S. Congress, the Dutch Parliament warned that JASTA violates the Dutch sovereignty and it could prompt “astronomical damages”. The White House and Secretary of Defense Carter advised Congress that this bill could put American diplomats, intelligence officers, and military personnel abroad at risk. CIA Director, John Brennan, alarmed congress that JASTA will have “grave implications for the national security of the United States”.
Notwithstanding, members of congress, eager to get re-elected this year, choose to toss the 1976 Sovereign Immunity Act under the bus. The United States Congress accomplished in one day what the Al-Qaeda neglected to accomplish for the past 15 years, as my colleague Sultan Alamer argued. It has been Al-Qaeda’s long-time goal to degrade the seven-decade alliance between the United States and Saudi Arabia. The 28th of September of this year was a good day for Al-Qaeda, unfortunately.
It is basic to note that JASTA does not mean the U.S. is turning its back to Saudi Arabia. It is worthwhile to consider that the Obama administration was against JASTA. Also the U.S. provided Saudi Arabia with logistical and intelligence support for their military intervention in Yemen. President Obama offered more arms deals and military-related services to Saudi Arabia than any other U.S. president. In fact, the U.S. Senate rejected a bid to block a $1.15 billion dollars weapons deal to Saudi Arabia a week ago. And let us not overlook that Riyadh has been – and still is – genuinely necessary partner for the United States. Now more than ever.
But this does not imply that the way of the Saudi-American relations did not change after 2011. The two countries had distinctive perspectives over the Arab Spring. The Saudis were outraged that the Obama administration supported the ouster of Egypt’s long-time President Mubarak, a strong ally of Saudi Arabia. The U.S.-Iran nuclear deal was not taken lightly in the Saudi capital. The Saudis perceive Iran’s actions in the region as disruptive. Shortly after the deal, Obama expressed his view that the Saudi government should get used to sharing the region with Tehran. Also Washington and Riyadh have different policies toward Syria. Apparently, the relations between the two old allies faced several challenges.
If I were the national security advisor of Saudi Arabia, I would want to know why JASTA became law after 15 years of the tragic incident of the 9/11 attacks. I would also be extremely concerned why the supermajority of Congress approved this law. There is no doubt that the bitter memory of 9/11 attacks, sympathy toward the families of the victims, and the congressional elections this year influenced the JASTA vote.
In any case, it is similarly imperative to note that it has become chic nowadays to criticize Riyadh in the American Capital. It ought to serve as a caution for Riyadh that 58 percent of the American public view Saudi Arabia unfavorably.
This law implicitly expresses the U.S. Congress dissatisfaction with the Saudi government handling of hometown extremism, women rights, and freedom of expression. While I strongly agree that this perspective is unjust in light of Riyadh’s efforts to handle these issues in the recent years, I also think it is for the Saudi government’s own interest to lessen the grip of the religious establishment more, to provide women with more rights, and to allow a relatively free environment to express political views. In addition, the fact that several members of Congress expressed concern over Saudi Arabia’s military action in Yemen cannot be ignored.
JASTA is merely a symptom of the U.S. Congress dissatisfaction with some of Riyadh’s policies. It is critical for Saudi Arabia to establish more effective communication channels with the U.S. Congress.
*Hamad AlThunayyan is a PhD Researcher in Political Science at University of Maryland- College Park. He earned his BA in Political Science from Virginia Commonwealth University and MA in International Relations from American University – Washington, DC. He specializes in Gulf security, Iran, and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter: @HAlthunayyan