Saudi- U.S. Relations Post JASTA Law

The Observation and Analysis Unit
11 Oct 2016

ince U.S. President Barack Obama came to presidency in 2009, Saudi-US relations have been in a chill stage


Since U.S. President Barack Obama came to presidency in 2009, Saudi-US relations have been in a chill stage, and perhaps tension, not as it used to be. The keenness of President Obama to the rapprochement with Iran and ending the ban on them, was the most important cause of this apathy, in addition to the decline in the U.S. need for Saudi Arabia.

A month prior turning the page of the 44th president of the United States and holding a new presidential election(Clinton-Trump), US Congress, including its Both houses (House and Senate), adopted Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, which is known as JASTA for short. This Act allows U.S. nationals to sue any foreign state. Also, it permits, in particular, families of victims of September 11, 2001 bombings to sue states that are proven involved in the operation and to receive compensations from them.

Although the decision did not mention any state or authority in particular, but the previous claims introduced by the lobby, that is handling the file of victims of September 11, 2001, explain the objective of this act, in which it has made a hole in Saudi-U.S. relations, even if the bill has not been passed. The image of Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has gotten a lot of distortion, following this decision, at the level of world opinion. In return, the Act has destabilized the trust of Saudi investors and possibly the Gulf and Arabs, in general, in U.S. market and it is no longer as it was; the U.S. judicial burglary has become expected at any moment, let alone international investments and deposits which have become subject to local judicial decisions.

International comments about this law followed in defense of the principle of sovereign immunity and laws of international relations. This is considered as an opportunity for Saudi diplomacy, in case it makes good use of it and gets an internationalist stance against this Act. Will Saudi diplomacy succeed in turning adversity into a grant or they can not to do anything before this new variable, as in what happened following the Iranian nuclear deal? In both cases, there is still an insisting question, where is Saudi-U.S. relationship heading after this act? What are the available options for Saudi Arabia?

This paper is trying to respond to these questions through reading the dynamics of the decision and the implications of the timing as well as its expected reflexes that are deciding the future of Saudi-U.S. relations.

Historical Background on Saudi-U.S. Relations:

History of Saudi-U.S. relations dates back to 1933, while the  signing of an agreement that would give U.S. companies the right to explore for oil. Saudi-U.S. relationship has been distinguished by its smoothness. The first meeting that Inaugurated the relations between the two countries and brought together, U.S. President (Roosevelt) and founder King (Abdul Aziz),  was in 1945, aboard the naval cruiser USS (Quincy) at Bitter Lakes near the city of Suez.

Since then, Saudi-U.S. never experienced rupture or strain except during the reign of King Faisal in 1973, when he stopped exporting oil to America due to its support for Israel. Two years later, he was assassinated in 1975. King Khalid, then, took over after him, he who has restored relationship to normal, and it lasted until September 11, 2001 attacks, which is believed to be one of the reasons responsible for rifting relations between the two countries.

Despite the dedication of the Kingdom on its war against terrorism as well as providing all kinds of intelligence cooperation to the United States, this cooperation remained confined to the executive branch. Saudi Arabia did not pay attention to the importance of judicial and legislative institutions and civil society organizations, which left the Iranian lobby, and other opponents of the Kingdom, to work on attaching the incident on Saudi Arabia, which recently resulted in the law of  (JASTA). That has left the door open for a lot of speculations about the future of Saudi-U.S. relations after seventy years of partnership, versus improvements in U.S.-Iranian relations. So that is what forces Riyadh diversify its allies, especially after the decline of U.S. interest in the Arab region, and heading towards China and the Pacific.

Pillars of U.S.-Saudi Relations:

Saudi-U.S. relations are based on tow twin files, if one declines the other does, too, and if they both decline, relations of the two countries collapse: The first file is energy (oil); this file has been representing a great importance in strengthening the relationship during the last seven decades, yet, its importance has decreased to the U.S. administration after it put its hand on Iraq's oil, in addition to the discovery of shale oil.

The second file is (security and war on terrorism), and here the interest seems to be mutual, too; as the United States secures Gulf region and the rest of the kingdom's borders from any international threat against it, as well as to stand by the Kingdom's side in international forums, and to prevent Iran from acquiring or manufacturing nuclear warheads. However, the United States is no longer practicing these tasks, but on the contrary; it has contributed to the cancellation of the international ban on Iran and to the prolongation of the war in the Gulf neighboring, which made the Gulf surrounded by wars which may engulf it at any moment. This has caused Riyadh and some Gulf states to attempt looking for more credible allies in securing the area.

For its part, there were many options for the United States to fight terrorism; as Obama administration believes that (Drones) are the easiest and best way to target al-Qaeda. Besides, it believes that Saudi Arabia's role in this file has become marginal, but it must be preserved. U.S. officials, research centers, and major newspapers have warned that the break with the Kingdom based on the law of (JASTA) will endanger the file of anti-terrorism and U.S. interests in the region.

Whoever is following U.S. actions in its war against terrorism finds that it has begun to lean towards Shiite mainstream, and Iran as a state sponsoring it, which is taking advantage of that to expand and extend its control in the region, and it may succeed in that if the Arab and Sunni states are still giving priority to intra-conflicts rather than general strategic interests, and  the decline in Saudi-U.S. relations could be an opportunity for the rapprochement between countries of the region.

All in all, U.S.-Iranian rapprochement, and congress approval to the Act of (JASTA) are just indications for a decline in America's relations with Saudi Arabia. This necessarily means that Americans feel that the need for Saudi Arabia is no longer relevant; this is in terms of energy (oil).

Another factor is: Syrian file; as Kingdom of Saudi Arabia seeks to block the way for Iranian influence by overthrowing Assad, and they have expressed their willingness for ground intervention, nonetheless, Americans calculations for this position is different; Assad and Iranian influence is not a concern, but on the contrary, the survival of Assad regime is the U.S. glimmer of hope for the Saudi-Iranian collision, and probably the Turkish.

The same as in Yemen, the storm of resolve has launched and set a goal of regaining the state and cutting off Iranian influence. The Americans immediately rushed to contain the situation; they supported Saudi Arabia; in order to maintain the Houthis to be a pressure on Riyadh and to weaken it, especially after Riyadh attempt to open relations with both China and Turkey. Observers believe that the strategic vision announced by Riyadh at the beginning of the year 2016 did not satisfy Washington, especially in military and economic spheres.

Indications of Timing and Consensus:

Since the first weeks of the attacks of September 11, 2001 which hit the twin towers of World Trade Center and U.S. Congress, those who stand behind this Act, led by Senator (Jack Schumer), have been calling for Congress to have a vote on it, and it has been a practice for Congress to call for setting up a committee to investigate the case. Nevertheless, all reports submitted deny if there is evidence prove the relationship of the Kingdom to this incident. So, what prompted U.S. Congress, with absolute majority, to vote for the trial Act after 16 years?

It is for sure that the electoral race, between the Democratic and Republican parties, has the most prominent role in terms of timing, as well as the consensus in the Congress; as the difference in votes between the two candidates (Clinton - Trump) does not exceed 2%. Therefore, any issue could affect the number of voters. So, there is no doubt that priority is given by either parties at this critical stage. This does not mean that elections are the only factor behind the decision of Congress; as the United States has already experienced two rounds of presidential elections after the events of September 11, but this election came in a different and chilled atmosphere in Saudi-U.S. relations versus warmth in U.S.-Iranian relations.

JASTA  Between Executive and Legislative Branches

Democratic Senator (Jack Schumer) and Republican Senator (John Cornyn) have suggested  the bill of (JASTA) to U.S. Senate for a vote. lawmakers of U.S. Congress ratified it, earlier this month. It was, then, lift to President Obama for approval, but the latter rejected, and utilized his power to veto against the Act, pointing out the dangers of this Act on U.S. interests. "That violates laws that have been applicable for hundreds of years", he said, "It violates sovereign immunity in international custom, and it leaves Americans at risk in case other countries reacted in the same manner". However, Senate and House did not pay attention to Obama's warnings, and they had a re-vote. 348 deputies voted to override (presidential veto), compared with 77. In the Senate, 97 senators voted to override the veto versus one senator. The Congress override of president Obama's veto on JASTA law has placed Obama Administration in a weak position, and turned its mission from being the greatest power in foreign policy-making to the most vulnerable ring among the positions of the U.S. legislative and judicial authorities on one hand, and between imperatives of foreign policy and pressure of allies on the other.

For this  due, disagreement of president Obama with Congress on the new law (JASTA) could be placed in a label that:  the fear if some states enact a similar law against U.S. individuals, politicians, and soldiers who have participated in the Acts of violence, murder, torture, and extermination; as in what happened to the people of the Japanese city of Hiroshima in World War II; the extermination of the Vietnamese people; the torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison and the detainees at Guantanamo Bay; and the innocent victims of drones in Yemen, Afghanistan, etc. let alone its support for Israeli terrorism in murdering Palestinian civilians.

Some argue that this dispute between the two authorities: the legislative (Congress), and the executive (Obama administration), is nothing but an attempt to contain any international reaction, and to suggest international aggrieved parties who reject this decision that the executive branch of U.S. administration will not accept the issuance of this resolution which leaves its interests at risk. However, the Act has left (a return line) in its fifth clause that provides for the possibility to stop the lawsuit against any foreign state in case Secretary of State certifies that there is good intention of the foreign defendant state to deal with the United States. The Act also specifies the duration of stopping the lawsuit which is no more than 180 days, and it can be resumed again if needed.

Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Options Versus JASTA Law

Saudi Arabia has a lot of pressure papers on Americans, but they do not have the appropriate alternatives due to its strong alliance with the United States. The Kingdom needed not to alternatives during the last period. However,  this law will, without a doubt, make a new review of policy, which is based on the multiplicity of allies and distribution of interests.

With regard to the implications of the law of (JASTA), there are options for Saudi Arabia that will be presented on the table if the law is issued, or its properties get banned. On the contrary, other options will be introduced in case the law is amended or no longer practiced.

In case the Act is adopted, Saudi Arabia has a lot of options to put pressure on U.S. decision-maker, including:

  • International law; in which Saudi Diplomacy interacts with states rejecting the Act; in order to form a joint international commission to drop JASTA law through International Tribunal and United Nations, the United States enacting this law violates the principles of international dealings.
  • Economic pressure; as Saudi Arabia occupies a significant position in foreign investments in the United States, yet it has 96.5 billion dollars in assets under Treasury Department management, which makes it investor Number 15 in the list of owners of U.S. Treasury assets, not counting private companies. Economic pressure may not have to be withdrawing money only but also opening other markets with China, Turkey and other competing countries as well as keeping oil production could come in this context.
  • Political sphere; Kingdom of Saudi Arabia enjoys great acceptance among Arab and Islamic countries, especially when it comes to the American Influence, the Islamic countries may stand in solidarity with them, let alone Gulf states which seem to be as affiliates in its general policies. Therefore, initiating the Islamic alliance would be a severe blow to the American influence; since it includes three powerful countries, such as Turkey, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. Consequently, this alliance would resolve the battle in Yemen and Syria, and cut off the road to Iranian intervention.


It is clear that the Americans have deliberately voted for the law, knowing its results and implications on the relationship with Saudi Arabia; aiming at extorting Saudi Arabia, and also to use it as a pressure judicial paper against any Saudi move that would go against U.S. administration  will, which means it is a political decision not righteous. This indicates that Saudi Arabia currently will have custody of any response until a new administration comes, which of course will come on a poisoned relationship, as U.S. Brookings Center called it. And If we look at the comments of European Union and Turkey on the decision, and other states, and even talking about the demands for trials against Americans, we find that the trend towards amending the law is possible and most likely.

As for the future of U.S.-Saudi relations, it is likely that it will not be the same, and it will not get more strained than it is; as America has delivered its message, and the rapprochement with the Kingdom will be back again. additionally, it would never leave Saudi Arabia to open its markets to neither China, the international enemy of America, nor to Turkey either, the regional enemy of Israel. Therefore, Americans do not have a choice but to maintain their interests with Saudi Arabia. However, it is an interest for Saudi Arabia to have multiplicity of allies and distribution of interests.

Comments & Discussion

Stay Updated