JASTA reverberates throughout Gulf region

Sunday 09/10/2016
Saudi Arabia pos­sesses many tools that could threaten Washington’s interests

LONDON - The US Congress’s override of US President Barack Obama’s veto of the Jus­tice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) re­verberated across the Middle East, with officials and the general public condemning the law.

“The enactment of JASTA is of great concern to the community of nations that object to the erosion of the principle of sovereign immuni­ty,” an official at the Saudi Foreign Ministry said. The unnamed speak­er cited by the official Saudi Press Agency said this precedent would have a negative effect on all coun­tries, including the United States.

JASTA gives families of 9/11 vic­tims the right to sue the Saudi government for liability despite a US government investigation that determined the attacks were not sanctioned by Saudi Arabia. The loss of sovereign immunity is an issue that concerns most govern­ments, as a number of its officials reacted to the new legislation on social media:

“Populist legislation in the JASTA case prevailed over rationalism, which is required in all matters of international law and investment risks. The repercussions will be serious and enduring,” wrote UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash on Twitter. Bah­rain Foreign Minister Khaled bin Ahmed described the law on Twit­ter as “an arrow launched by the US Congress at its own country”.

Regional media either con­demned the law or pondered what this meant for Saudi-US relations. “A perfect blackmailing law,” Khalid al-Malik wrote in the Saudi newspaper Al Jazirah.

“We stood by America and un­derstood its stances and poli­cies. We taught our children in its universities and deposited large amounts of our savings in its finan­cial institutions,” Malik said in his opinion piece.

“This is America that conspires against us and reveals, through up­holding of JASTA, an unprecedent­ed suspicious position towards us,” he added.

Writing in Lebanon’s leftist-leaning Al-Safir, Suleiman Nimr stressed that Saudi Arabia “pos­sesses many economic, and even political, tools that could threaten Washington’s interests not only in the Arab and Islamic region but in­side the United States itself.”

“Riyadh could halt arms deals with Washington… It could re­duce its imports from the United States, withdraw its investments and about $115 billion of financial reserves out of the country,” Nimr said.

A lead editorial in Egypt’s Al-Dus­tour said: “Saudi Arabia feels that it was stabbed in the back after up­holding JASTA.” “Riyadh might de­cide to scale down its counterterror­ism cooperation with Washington, which was not influenced by the lukewarm relations since Obama took office in 2009,” it added.

Despite the general uproar, ana­lysts say JASTA’s impact on rela­tions might be a short-term phe­nomenon.

“The prospect of billions (of dol­lars) worth of Saudi assets possibly being frozen by a court order must make Saudi officials nervous and understandably so. However, it is not just the Saudi government that is extremely concerned about this possibility but so are Saudi busi­nesses and American businesses involved in joint ventures with Saudi companies,” said Saudi ana­lyst Fahad Nazer, adding that this creates an air of uncertainty in the business community of both coun­tries.

Nazer said that, in the long term, Saudi-US relations will endure, noting that relationship did not survive and flourish for eight dec­ades by happenstance. “I think that the clear Saudi preference for US weapons and training, the $70 bil­lion worth of trade and the close security and counterterrorism co­operation are enough to sustain this relationship for the foreseeable future,” Nazer said.

Some have said that the passing of the bill was politically motivated as members of Congress who over­rode the presidential veto do not want to be seen to be voting against the families of the victims of 9/11, especially so close to an election. However, should Saudi Arabia shoulder the blame for not project­ing its position more accurately to the US populace?

“I think there is a fairly wide consensus in Saudi Arabia that the kingdom needs to tackle the im­age problem that it has in the West in general and in the United States in particular. You are beginning to see some push back from Saudi offi­cials in the form of more media in­terviews and more opinion pieces,” Nazer said.

“There are even some private ef­forts under way that are more fo­cused on the American public at large. All these efforts must con­tinue and intensify if Saudi Arabia is to once again achieve the favour­able standing it enjoyed during the time of the 1990 Gulf War. I think it can be done but will likely take some time.”