JASTA reverberates throughout Gulf region
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.”