US Congress has just opened Pandora’s box Image Credit: Niño Jose Heredia/Gulf News

The decision by the US Congress to pass into law the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (Jasta) after overriding US President Barack Obama’s veto — handing the president his first political defeat in almost eight years of his two-term presidency — was humiliating, especially as scores of Democratic congressmen from both houses defected and voted against one of their own! It was telling of the charged politics in Washington, six weeks before the presidential and congressional elections on November 8, 2016.

It is ironic how the plight of families of 9/11 victims is being politicised by a lame-duck Congress, to a lame-duck president, without paying any regard to the huge mess that will result from the implementation of the new law as far as international relations are concerned and the ensuing chaos by way of retaliatory lawsuits filed by relatives of individuals killed by the US through war, aggressions, torture and even drone attacks that have claimed the lives of innocent civilians in many countries.

Targeting Saudi Arabia — by allowing the families of 9/11 victims to sue the kingdom for its alleged role in the attacks — is a reckless move that is politicking at its worst. Obama described Congress’s overriding of his veto as “a political vote and a mistake.”

Jasta, also known as the 9/11 Bill, mainly targets Saudi Arabia and other nations whose citizens carried out terrorist acts against the US, resulting in the deaths of US citizens.

The US Congress was determined to pass the 9/11 Bill despite a slew of warnings from the president, the secretary of defence, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and many chief executive officers of major US corporations, who all warned that it would endanger US interests and could subject US officials to retaliatory lawsuits, in addition to undermining the “sovereign immunity” of nations.

Sovereign immunity protections at risk

The appeal by 28 senators from both parties, who wrote a letter to the two senators co-sponsoring the ‘9/11’ Bill, went unheeded despite the letter warning of the ensuing consequences that might result from “this legislation on national security and [the] foreign policy of the US. If other nations respond to this bill by weakening US sovereign immunity protections, then the US could face private lawsuits in foreign courts as a result of important military and intelligence activities.”

This is a reckless move by the Congress at the height of election season, in which it is champion citizens’ rights for recourse, albeit wrongly and with dangerous and unprecedented consequences.

Allowing the families of the victims of the 9/11 terror attacks to sue Saudi Arabia for its alleged role in supporting terrorism — even though the bipartisan 9/11 Commission, through the 28 pages of its findings that were recently declassified, found no clear evidence linking the Saudi government or officials to the 19 terrorists on September 11, 2001 — is a travesty of justice and opens a Pandora’s box that could jeopardise US interests. Furthermore, any such action will worsen the already frayed ties, which could torpedo relations between the two strategic allies to a new low and may even result in calls to revisit and re-evaluate their alliance.

Are we witnessing the fracturing of this enduring alliance that has been the hallmark of the relationship between the two allies for almost eight decades? And how would that affect the dynamics of Arabian Gulf security as well as relations with smaller GCC states? How about the impact on the cold war between the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Iran in the Gulf region?

Clearly, the move by the US Congress, and prior to this, by numerous US administrations and lately by US newspapers to give Iranian representatives the pulpit, where it has spewed out venomous attacks, feeds a frenzy of suspicion around the possibility of a conspiracy to undermine the kingdom and, together with GCC allies, weaken its resolve. Such moves include the recent column in the New York Times by Iranian foreign minister Javed Zarif on September 13, 2016 that was titled, ‘Let us rid the world of Wahhabism’.

US-Saudi relations have endured many crises and divergence in the past. These include the 1973 oil embargo, the Arab-Israeli conflict, as well as Iran’s destabilising activities, its shenanigans and interference in the affairs of America’s GCC allies and Arab states through the expansion of its hegemonic project in which it seeks to be the dominant regional anchor and power under the watch of the Obama administration Recently, the divergence has been evident on Syria and Yemen. On top of this, there are the usual demands on the need for domestic reforms, religious freedom and respect for human rights in general, and those of women in particular — all which have become recurrent issues.

But the strategic divergence between the two allies is clearly centred on America’s pivot towards Iran, in addition to it not seeing eye-to-eye with Saudi Arabia and many of its allies in the region over issues the latter consider existential threats. The trust deficit between the two sides is growing.

Passing the 9/11 Bill into law, thus holding Saudi Arabia and other nations responsible for the reckless behaviour of a few of their citizens, has sunk relations and this move could strain their alliance, raising concerns not only on the impact of Jasta on the future of relations with the new, incoming US administration but on the billions of assets, treasury bonds and funds invested in the US by such nations.

What kind of message is the US establishment sending out to current and potential investors (especially to Saudi Arabia, which has hundreds of billions of dollars invested in the US and is pursuing a scheme — Saudi Arabia Vision 2030 — to create the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund with $2 trillion in assets)?

Clearly there won’t be a divorce. Too much has been invested in this relationship over the last eight decades. The relationship has endured ebbs and flows and these seemingly ‘irreconcilable’ differences will be ironed out, but the scars will leave indelible marks on a relationship which is yet to achieve its full potential.

There are lessons to be learnt for all sides. Hopefully, these lessons will be heeded.

Dr Abdullah Al Shayji is a professor of Political Science and the former chairman of the Political Science Department at Kuwait University. You can follow him on Twitter/ At www.twitter.com/@docshayji