Why JASTA has major implications for the region
US lawmakers have opened up a Pandora’s Box surrounding the Justice against Sponsors of Terrorism Act
As America’s presidential campaign heats up on the heels of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s first debate, US lawmakers opened up a Pandora’s Box surrounding the Justice against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA). The House and Senate buried their partisan politics and overrode US President Barack Obama’s veto of JASTA, which allows families killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks to sue Saudi Arabia’s government for the kingdom’s alleged involvement. The implications for the MENA region and the GCC in particular are paramount.
Without a doubt, Saudi Arabia is on the frontline in the beginning of this long-term legal drama. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir strongly stated that if JASTA became law, “everybody will begin to think twice before they invest in a place where their assets could be seized”. Whether this will become a reality doesn’t really matter now because there are larger issues at play.
To be sure, JASTA allows Saudi citizens to sue the US government and its employees in foreign courts. Given the Kingdom’s leading role in the region under the guidance of Saudi King Salman, other Arab countries, specifically those who are partnered with the Kingdom in Operation Restore Hope in Yemen, could also be part of JASTA’s fallout.
But JASTA also risks opening the door for foreign governments to return the gesture by amending their own laws to allow their citizens to sue the US government and its employees in foreign courts, most likely state security courts. That would cause quite a headache for Washington given how active the United States is abroad with everything from drone strikes to foreign surveillance and backing foreign militias.
From a GCC point of view, JASTA is taking Saudi Arabia on at exactly the wrong time. The Saudi leadership is pursuing the opening months of the Kingdom’s fifteen-year Vision 2030 program. This vital Saudi program does not need any hiccups along the way between America and Riyadh in their bilateral relations. Major US companies are planning major investments in the Kingdom.
There is no doubt that as a consequence of JASTA, Riyadh may convince officials in the other five Gulf capitals to scale back counter-terrorism cooperation with Washington, in addition to rolling back investments and access to strategic located military bases. There is precedent for GCC-wide actions.
Overall, JASTA is going to ignite a firestorm of legal warfare that will directly undermine political relationships at a time when robust ties to fight terrorism is requiredDr. Theodore Karasik
There have been occasions when Saudi Arabia rallied the GCC behind the Kingdom at times of trouble. Last year, Sweden’s Foreign Minister harshly criticized Riyadh for human rights issues, resulting in a backlash against Stockholm’s interests across the GCC which prompted the Swedes to take retract. The previous year, the Saudis along with Bahrain and the UAE imposed unprecedented pressure on Qatar to punish Doha for sponsoring the Muslim Brotherhood across the MENA region.
Remarkably, the door is open for MENA countries which may see the opportunity to sue the US in their courts. These states, in varying circumstances, can change their policy on diplomatic immunity to pursue political aims by arresting American soldiers, intelligence officers, and government officials. If, for example, disagreements break out between the US and Turkey and Ankara pursues extraordinary legal measures unilaterally against American personnel this action may end up being fought in Turkish courts within a political context.
Other countries can use this example on a case by case basis. In other words, JASTA can backfire in an extremely negative way for Washington now that the US has set the precedent of allowing its citizens to sue foreign governments for the actions of some of their own citizens.
A key issue in the MENA states that may find itself in regional court systems is that America’s role behind acts of terrorism. American action in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen are seen by many as being criminal acts and acts of terrorism. The idea that Washington is guilty of destroying the Middle East and allowing the rise of Islamic State is prominent.
In an age when America is trying to lead the global fight against terrorism through numerous international organizations and coalitions, JASTA is possibly opening the door to accusations of terrorism flying in numerous directions where sovereign immunity is worthless.
For example, what about US citizens who join the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). These Americans joined the YPG at a time when violence between the Turkish military and Kurdish forces escalates throughout Turkish/Syrian Kurdistan. As the battlefield evolves, these US citizens may find themselves in new, uncharted legal territory if captured or involved in a violent act. This fact holds true for other MENA conflicts with those holding American passports in conflict zones.
Overall, JASTA is going to ignite a firestorm of legal warfare that will directly undermine political relationships at a time when robust ties to fight terrorism is required. JASTA is the ultimate disaster and hopefully cooler heads will prevail as sovereign immunity is tossed out the window.
Dr. Theodore Karasik is a Gulf-based analyst of regional geo-political affairs. He received his Ph.D in History from UCLA in Los Angeles, California in four fields: Middle East, Russia, Caucasus, and a specialized sub-field in Cultural Anthropology focusing on tribes and clans. He tweets @tkarasik