In an Oct. 3 meeting, the Saudi Cabinet said that the United States passing the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) — which allows families of the 9/11 victims to sue countries of the perpetrators of the attacks — is of great concern to the international community, as international relations are based on the principle of equality and sovereign immunity. It added that a weakened sovereign immunity would negatively affect all countries, including the United States.
On Oct. 20, US Secretary of State John Kerry said after his meeting with his Saudi counterpart, Adel al-Jubeir, in Washington, “We discussed ways to try to fix this in a way that respects and honors the needs and rights of victims of 9/11, but at the same time does not expose American troops and American partners and American individuals who may be involved in another country to the potential of a lawsuit for those activities.”
The Saudi government’s statement against JASTA, which was passed on Sept. 28, coincided with Riyadh’s economic measures, which include negotiations with Western financial institutions to sell US Treasury bonds estimated in March to be worth up to $116 billion. Although Riyadh is yet to determine the size of the US treasury bonds expected to be sold, there is talk within economic circles inside and outside Saudi Arabia that a maximum of nearly $20 billion in Treasury bonds will be sold. This would mean that Riyadh will not go too far in its reaction to JASTA, at least at this stage, and will content itself with the sale of a part of its portfolio in US Treasury bonds. This would be a warning message delivered to Washington, on the one hand, and an attempt to reduce the Saudi public debt, which reached $73 billion in August, on the other.
Furthermore, Riyadh signed an agreement with Beijing that came into force Sept. 26, under which commercial transactions between Saudi Arabia and China, which amount to $49 billion annually, shall be made according to a direct exchange system between the Chinese yuan and the Saudi Arabia riyal, without having to use the US dollar as intermediary currency. The agreement includes 1.1 million barrels of oil per day to be imported from Riyadh to Beijing.
JASTA was used for the first time by Stephanie Ross DeSimone, the widow of US naval Cmdr. Patrick Dunn, and his daughter Alexandra, on Sept. 30. They filed a lawsuit in Washington accusing the Saudi government of supporting al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and of knowing in advance that al-Qaeda was planning to attack the United States.
Thousands of lawsuits are expected to be filed in the future by the families of the 9/11 victims. This could affect the future of US-Saudi political ties and the US properties of Saudi princes who had diplomatic and security positions during the period of the 9/11 attacks.
The US-Saudi military, economic and security ties have evolved since the historic meeting between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz Al-Saud, founder of Saudi Arabia, on the USS Quincy in February 1945. Also, both countries have continued to justify their relations, especially in the fight against terrorism. Yet Republican and Democratic congressmen voted overwhelmingly against President Barack Obama's veto on JASTA, and the White House failed to prevent its passing. This shows that Saudi importance and influence in decision-making centers in Washington have declined.
The Saudi concern about a shift in US policy since the July 14, 2015, nuclear deal was concluded between Iran and the P5+1 group of world powers is growing. Add to this, The Atlantic’s April 2016 article “The Obama Doctrine,” where Obama openly accused Saudi Arabia of feeding sectarian conflict and taking advantage of the United States. He called on Saudi Arabia to reach an understanding and share the region with Iran. Riyadh started to realize that Washington was on its way to lift its absolute protection and that Saudi Arabia’s hereditary monarchy — which suffers from economic crises and does not belong to the international democratic system — is in real danger.
Riyadh is also aware that any economic measures against Washington will not have much impact on the US economy, although Washington will try to prevent Riyadh from making any huge withdrawal or sale of its assets out of fear that it would be intangibly reflected on the US market indices, without having an actual impact on the US economy. This is because all Saudi government investments in the US economy are currently less than $750 billion, which is the total amount of money that Riyadh had already threatened in April to withdraw from Washington, including the remaining $96 billion in US Treasury bonds until July, out of the $6 trillion foreign-held US Treasury bonds.
In an attempt to avoid the thousands of lawsuits that US families are expected to file, Riyadh has resorted to public relations companies and international organizations. In this vein, on Oct. 3, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation issued a statement saying that JASTA will disturb international relations and demanding that Washington reconsider it. Saudi Arabia also resorted to regional organizations, such as the Gulf Cooperation Council, which issued a statement during a ministerial meeting on the sidelines of UN meetings in New York on Sept. 18 demanding that Washington not pass JASTA and warned that it will cause global economic damages.
Riyadh embarked on unofficial bold steps to communicate with Israel, who Riyadh hopes will have influence within US decision-making centers and can be used to amend or freeze JASTA. This started with direct communications between Saudis and Israelis, most prominently Saudi retired Gen. Anwar Eshki, who visited Jerusalem and met with Israeli figures on July 22.
Meetings were also held May 6 between former head of Saudi intelligence Turki bin Faisal Al Saud and Israeli figures in the United States such as former Israeli national security adviser Yaakov Amidror at the Washington Institute. Saudi national Salman Ansari, the founder of the Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee, who is a close associate of the Saudi Embassy in Washington, called for a cooperative alliance with Israel.
Whether JASTA was enacted to provide justice and hold the sponsors of terrorism accountable, as declared, or whether there is another undeclared political objective to pressure Riyadh to promote its ties with Tel Aviv, Riyadh has become convinced more than ever that the closer it gets to Tel Aviv, the stronger and safer it will become in the face of JASTA and Iran alike.