JASTA: destroying what is left of US-Saudi relations?

JASTA: destroying what is left of US-Saudi relations?
Comment: Misguided legislation will serve only to exacerbate tensions between already frayed relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia argues Roxanne Perugino.
4 min read
02 Jun, 2016
The JASTA legislation would negatively impact US-Saudi relations [Getty]
On May 17, the Senate passed, by voice vote, S2040 the Justice against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, referred to as the JASTA, after agreeing to a substitute amendment.  The amendment, S.Amdt. 3945 was offered by Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a cosponsor of the legislation along with Senator Chuck Schumer (D-New York). 

Although the legislation does not specifically mention Saudi Arabia, the legislation is aimed at Saudi Arabia and is supported by a number of actors including former Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Bob Graham who believes the Kingdom was involved in the 9/11 attack against the US. 

The legislation is the work of members of Congress who mistakenly believe the Kingdom was behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the US.

Other members of Congress support the legislation who blame the Kingdom’s alleged export of extremist Islamic ideology and the funding of violent extremist groups, as well as the Kingdom’s human rights record and lack of religious freedom. 

The JASTA legislation would negatively impact US-Saudi relations as the legislation sets a new precedent by allowing families of victims of terror attacks on US soil to sue foreign states that fund terrorism and permit them to hold accountable those who aid and abet terrorism. The Administration opposes the bill and President Obama has said he will veto the bill if passed.

Cornyn’s amendment tones down the text of the bill compared with the version that was reported out of the Senate Judiciary Committee in February. For example, one provision of the amendment removes language stating Congress has the authority to impose penalties on those countries that provide material support for terrorist organizations, and raises the legal threshold for holding a foreign state responsible for international terrorism against the US.

However, the changes are not enough for the White House that views the changes as insufficient to satisfy its concerns about potential unintended consequences, such as opening up the United States to litigation. Schumer, however insisted the Senate would obtain the required two-thirds majority to override a presidential veto. Schumer is engaging in bravado as the original Senate bill has only 24 cosponsors, and since the bill was passed by voice vote, it is difficult to know just who voted against (or for) the bill.

The legislation now goes to the House for passage. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) wants to move cautiously on the legislation by letting it move through the House Judiciary Committee process before coming to the House floor for a vote. Congress currently is on break for the Memorial Day recess. The earliest the bill could be considered would be the week of June 6, but at present no action on the bill has been scheduled.

Impact on US-Saudi Relations

Tensions between the two countries have been simmering since the 9/11 terrorist attacks when suspicion arose in certain circles about Saudi involvement.  Strains increased following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and more recently with the Iran Nuclear Agreement.

Clearly, President Obama has not enjoyed the warm relationship relished by his predecessor former President George W. Bush.  The recent interview in the Atlantic where President Obama referred to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries as “free riders” unwilling to secure chaotic zones like Libya, did little to ease the tensions.  Moreover, the signing of the Iran nuclear deal unnerved the Kingdom, which has deep concerns about Iranian hegemony in the Gulf region, and was seen as yet another sign of distance in the US-Saudi relationship. 

The legislation is misguided and raises unproven allegations about Saudi involvement in 9/11.  It will serve only to exacerbate existing US-Saudi tensions tensions.  The US and Saudi Arabia need each other. The bilateral relationship is a historical one based on mutual security interests and the free flow of oil.  For these reasons, most observers express the hope that the legislation will not be enacted, or possibly further modified in a form acceptable both to the Kingdom and the Obama Administration. If however, the House passes the legislation, a presidential veto is guaranteed. 

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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.