Skip to main content
U.S. President Barack Obama (C) and Saudi King Salman (R) walk together following their meeting at Erga Palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia April 20, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque - RTX2AU9S
Markaz

What JASTA will mean for U.S.-Saudi relations

Bruce Riedel

The overwhelming vote in Congress to override President Obama’s veto of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) bill will haunt U.S.-Saudi relations for years. It is a reflection of the growing weakness of America’s oldest alliance in the Middle East that goes well beyond 9/11. The biggest loser will be the next president of the United States who will inherit a poisoned partnership, which she will need to help manage the region’s chaos and to fight terror.

The lesser-noticed 9/11 report

Congress passed JASTA despite two congressionally-mandated independent investigations in 2004 and 2015 that concluded that the Saudi government had no role in al-Qaida’s plot to attack America on September 11, 2001. The 9/11 Commission in 2004 examined the possible Saudi role in the plot closely and concluded there was no evidence to support the claims that the Saudi government or Saudi officials were involved in the attacks. No Saudi official was involved in the planning or execution of Osama bin Laden’s mass murder. The staff report of the commission that investigated the attack’s funding, which was released separately, concluded “despite persistent public speculation, there is no evidence” the Saudis funded it.

There is a second report that has gotten far too little attention in the JASTA debate. In 2014, Congress mandated that the Federal Bureau of Investigation conduct a special review of how it had implemented the recommendations of the 9/11 report. The FBI was also asked to review if there was any new evidence not available to the 9/11 commission that would change its findings concerning the perpetrators of the attack and their supporters, if any, in foreign governments.

The FBI set up a commission to do so. Three outside experts agreed to head the commission: former Attorney General Ed Messe, former Congressman Tim Roemer, and Georgetown University Professor Bruce Hoffman, one of the foremost experts on terrorism in the country. The FBI gave the commission full access to its records and to its employees. The commission also reviewed documents captured from al-Qaida since 9/11—including material found in bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad Pakistan in May 2011—to see if they shed any new light. They also had access to the information acquired from al-Qaida detainees.

The FBI commission report was published last year and is available online. It found that “no new information obtained since the 2004 9/11 Commission report would change the 9/11 Commission’s finding regarding responsibilities for the 9/11 attacks.” The 2015 FBI commission specifically looked at some of the accusations about alleged Saudi involvement and found them not credible. After reviewing the material from Abbottabad and from Guantanamo, it concludes: “none of this evidence identifies any additional participants in the planning or carrying out of the 9/11 attacks” beyond those identified in the 9/11 Commission report. Indeed, the new material available in the last decade since the 2004 report “does strengthen and enhance the case against the existing plotters” identified by the commission in 2004.

Shaky relations

Of course, few members of Congress read the reports they ask for. They voted for JASTA because the Kingdom is increasingly unpopular in America. The fact that fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers were Saudis is only part of the problem. Some Americans never forgot the 1973 oil embargo that ravaged the American economy, and others are appalled at Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, especially on women’s rights.

The war in Yemen has further damaged the alliance. The richest Arab states, led by Riyadh, have been bombing and blockading the poorest Arab country for over a year and a half with American weapons, logistics, and intelligence. Millions of Yemenis are starving. The Senate has become increasingly frustrated with arms sales to support the war.

Riyadh has spent millions of dollars on lobbyists and public relations firms to try to improve its image and block JASTA. They failed. The Saudis got a few pandering opinion pieces hailing King Salman and his son Prince Muhammad bin Salman as innovators, but neither Congress nor the public bought it.

The feeling is increasingly mutual. Saudi opinion has soured on American foreign policy since the repeated failures to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace, George W. Bush’s disastrous Iraq war, and Obama’s handling of the Arab Spring. A recent editorial by a prominent Saudi close to the palace suggested the United States is now secretly promoting an Israeli-Iranian condominium to run the Middle East at the expense of Sunni Arabs. Other editorials have called for retaliation against the United States for all but accusing the Kingdom of supporting the 9/11 attack.

Of course, Saudis have in fact been the target of repeated al-Qaida attacks for years, including four attempts to assassinate Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef (MBN), probably the most effective counter-terrorist in the world. This only adds to the anger in the Kingdom.

So what now?

But there are limits to what the Kingdom can do. It needs constant American resupply and maintenance to keep the Royal Saudi Air Force in the air, and the rest of the Saudi military is equally dependent on the American military-industrial complex. Changing that fact would take decades. Some retaliation will come, but it won’t alter the Saudi need for American military support. The most likely arena for retaliation may be in the counterterrorism field, meaning the bill will make Americans less safe. We have to hope MBN counsels caution.

The Kingdom has always been a problematic partner.

The biggest loser in the JASTA self-inflicted wound will be Obama’s successor. Hillary Clinton supported the bill and the override, and the Saudis won’t forget that. They will be reluctant to help her Middle East policy from now on. This will hurt whatever policies she takes toward ISIS, Syria, Iraq, and other issues. And the next American ambassador to the Kingdom can expect a hostile reception. If Donald Trump wins, the Saudis will be no happier, given his repeated calls to “take the oil.” The Saudis have already rallied their Gulf allies to protest JASTA with them, so the problem will extend well beyond Riyadh. MBN secured Turkey’s opposition to the bill during a visit to Ankara last week.

The litigation process to resolve the case against the Kingdom will doubtless take years to sort out and cost a fortune in defense lawyers. The investigation of prominent Saudis will be humiliating for the royal family—one of the King’s sons, Ahmad, has been accused of advance knowledge of the 9/11 plot, for instance. He died in 2002, but his story is sure to be reviewed again in the judicial process. The FBI investigated this allegation, as well, but that won’t keep it buried.

The Kingdom has always been a problematic partner. When President Franklin Roosevelt met with King Abdel Aziz, better known as Ibn Saud, in 1945 after the Yalta summit, he found the Saudi to be the toughest negotiator he’d ever met. Stalin seemed like a pushover compared to the king.

But the Saudis have enormous influence in the Islamic world.  As the custodian of the two holy mosques, the king can be a force for good or bad in the Muslim community. In the past, the Kingdom has all too often encouraged intolerance and fanaticism in Islam. It has fanned the flames of sectarianism, especially since Salman ascended to the throne. JASTA will likely bring out the worst in Saudi behavior.

Get daily updates from Brookings