The ‘JASTA’ Law: Storm Winds between Riyadh and Washington

No doubt motivated by the best of intentions and giving into the popular lobby group of victims of the 9/11 attacks, this week, Congress passed a law that will further damage relations between the U.S. and its main ally in the Arab world, Saudi Arabia. The aforementioned legislation could also weaken the position of the U.S. on the diplomatic front.

That is to say, elected officials, Democrats and Republicans, in the Senate and in the House of Representatives, have just filled certain nights at the White House and in the rest of the administration with nightmares — from the State Department to the Treasury, through the Pentagon. More precisely, on Tuesday, Sept. 27 and then on Thursday, Sept. 29, lawmakers voted with a large margin, beyond the required super majority, to overthrow Obama’s veto on the “JASTA” law, “Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act” — a bill that authorizes a U.S. citizen to sue a state that may have “directly or indirectly” aided organizations involved “in terrorist activities against the United States.”

Until now, this was only possible against states the administration has placed on the list of states that practice terrorism. Saudi Arabia is not on this list. Yet it is this country that the bipartisan JASTA targets. Fifteen of the 19 perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks were Saudi Arabian. The “lobby” of the victims’ families is a popular one. It wants to sue Riyadh.

The White House says this opens the door to unprecedented diplomatic-legal chaos. First of all, in order to protect themselves from possible lawsuits in the U.S., numerous states can put in place similar provisions. Second, JASTA is written in very vague terms. We can imagine Americans of Ukrainian background suing Russia, others of Irish descent dragging the U.K. into a lawsuit — and each time, a determined judge blocking the bank accounts in dollars of the targeted country …

Financial Retaliations

Most importantly, the House of Saud has been the strongest U.S. ally since 1945 — and later Israel — in the Middle East. Congress’s investigation on 9/11 found Riyadh and the kingdom’s highest authorities completely innocent, but it holds that it cannot prove nor exclude “low-level” Saudi responsibility. Therein lies the opening that JASTA gives to the families of victims to attack Saudi Arabia.

This evokes financial retaliations that can be devastating. According to The Wall Street Journal, Riyadh has $560 billion in its reserves, $96.5 billion of which are in U.S. Treasury bonds: A ready “bomb,” if it is used, to ruin the financial reputation of the country whose currency is the main reserve currency of the world. We are not even accounting for the fact that Washington and Riyadh have the closest military-strategic ties despite growing disagreement regarding the Middle East — on Iran, Syria and Yemen.

This episode testifies to the drastic drop in popularity of the Saudis in the United States. What’s in question is the image of a country that propagates across the world the retrograde version of Islam that inspires numerous jihadis. Without a doubt, JASTA will be modified by elected officials, but already it has dealt another blow to the relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

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