Why JASTA compresses the US view of Saudi Arabia

While the wording of the law does not mention Saudi Arabia, JASTA is associated in the public perception with the country

Abdullah Hamidaddin
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Wednesday September 28 will be marked as a key milestone in the downfall of US-Saudi relations. Both the House and the Senate overwhelmingly voted to override President Obama’s veto on Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA). Both voted against the interests of Saudi Arabia.

Most of what’s been written has focused on how the law may reshape international relations, jeopardize the sacred principle of sovereign immunity, threaten the interests of mega US corporations working in Saudi Arabia, jeopardize America’s relations with its allies, or expose the United States to similar suits from other countries. They called those big issues: “unintended consequences”, and decided JASTA was an “imperfect solution” meant to bring justice and give the families of the victims of 9-11 a day in court.

The members of Congress cited other laws that make exceptions to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, and that JASTA is not be the first law that allows US citizens to sue foreign governments. In the debate to support the law they said that if American citizens can sue a foreign government due to a bar fight, then why not sue it for supporting a terrorist attack on US soil.

The reaction of Saudis to this law has been mixed. Many snubbed the law stating that since Saudi Arabia had nothing to do with 9-11 then – echoing some Senate members – Saudi has nothing to worry about. Others focused on the financial aspects of the law, some on the complexity of the legal procedures needed to activate the law, or on the damage to the US.

We should have nothing to worry about the conclusion of a trial but about the process. JASTA is indeed a statement about how Congress values Saudi Arabia

Abdullah Hamidaddin

But the key question posed by many Saudis was: What does passing JASTA say about what we are to America? What does it say to see that the both houses of Congress almost unanimously supported a law that when put into practice will damage Saudi Arabia’s image in the United States?

During the debate on overriding the veto, members of Congress insisted that JASTA does not target a specific country and most avoided mentioning Saudi Arabia. But they also made it clear that the victims of 9-11 must have their day in court and some pointed out that if “Saudi Arabia is innocent” then it “has nothing to fear.”

So what they are saying is that we should not worry about going to a court of law and that dragging another country to courts should not complicate relations with it. While the wording of the law does not mention Saudi Arabia, yet JASTA is associated in the public perception with Saudi Arabia, and the only country that the lawmakers associated with the law was Saudi Arabia. Passing that law is itself a public indictment of Saudi Arabia; one which goes against all the existing evidence.

Public trial?

And imagine a court of law that will be covered by the media and followed by the nation, where expert witnesses will be brought on the issue of 9-11 but also on issues around it.

This is probably going to be public trial for Islam, Salafism, Wahhabism and the history of the region. We should have nothing to worry about the conclusion of a trial but about the process. JASTA is indeed a statement about how Congress values Saudi Arabia.

Before the passing of JASTA we knew our value before American politicians, but we chose to ignore it focusing on the unique aspects of the relationship and the deep interests between the two countries.

We constantly heard from American politicians and experts that Saudi Arabia – to use the words of a House Representative – plants “the seeds of terrorism around the world.” But we chose to ignore that.

Last May in a House Committee on Foreign Affairs’ hearing on “The US-Saudi Arabia Counter-Terrorism Relationship”, we heard one of the expert witnesses say: “policymakers would do well to remember that Saudi Arabia is a key partner but not a friend: the United States and Saudi Arabia share many common interests, but they do not share common values or a common worldview.”

Yet we also chose to ignore that. After JASTA we can no longer ignore such utterances.

Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1




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