JASTA: Still a thorn in the side of US-Saudi relations

MBS seems to have won President Donald Trump’s support – but JASTA still looms over relations between the two countries.

MbS Washington
US President Donald Trump holds a chart of military hardware sales as he welcomes Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the White House on March 20, 2018 [Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]

The US and Saudi Arabia established full diplomatic relations back in 1940, with the formal acceptance of the first American envoy to Saudi Arabia. The relations between the two countries were consolidated further in 1943 when the kingdom’s founder, King Abdulaziz al Saud, sent two of his sons, Faisal and Khalid – both of them future kings – to the United States, following an official invitation by Franklin D Roosevelt. The trip was a success – The former American president met the princes in the White House, and they both returned home in awe of the American nation. Since then, the two countries have maintained a baseline of economic and security cooperation that has kept ties between them strong. 

But in 2001, the 9/11 terror attacks -15 out of 19 attackers were Saudi nationals – turned the public opinion in the US against the kingdom and put a strain on relations. Later, in the last years of the Obama administration, the rift between the two countries grew further, as result of Saudi Arabia’s refusal to engage with Iran and the Obama administration’s cautions to the kingdom about the civilian toll of the war in Yemen.

Mohamed bin Salman, known in the West as MBS, the young crown prince and de-facto king, who is currently touring the US, has been trying to hit the reset button in relations since the inauguration of President Donald Trumphoping that the haze of his liberal-esque policies and state-wide economic visions will help wash away the allegations about his country’s involvement in the 9/11 terror attacks. 

So far, bin Salman seems to have won over the president. During his first trip to Riyadh, the Saudis gave Donald Trump more than he asked for; business deals and arms sales corroborated to nearly half a trillion dollars, and the pitfalls of the last eight years of US-Saudi relations were blamed on Obama’s administration. In terms of the larger region, bin Salman seems to have succeeded in presenting Iran as the bearer of the blame for the situations in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Palestine.

In Riyadh, Trump found a city that is reminiscent of his golden apartments and endless lines of yes-men. No other country would have spent as lavishly as the kingdom to guarantee that the president feels welcomed, and hears nothing but praise about himself and his administration. The scene was severely schizophrenic as it doesn’t seem natural that a president who has instituted a Muslim ban would be welcomed with such hospitality. 

Prior to bin Salman’s meeting with Trump in Washington last week, Adel al-Jubier, Saudi Arabia’s minister of foreign affairs stated that “relations with the US are at an all-time high,” and anticipated “a number of agreements to be signed on this trip” in the fields of investment, trade, technology and education. During their White House meeting, Mr Trump very happily held up poster boards of current and future Saudi investments and deals remarking, “three billion, $533m, $525m – that’s peanuts for you,” and the room erupted in laughter.

However, beyond these ambitious plans and regularly voiced pleasantries, it remains unclear as to what the future of the relationship between the two countries will look like.

One of the main challenges is the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), a bill passed – almost unanimously – by the Congress in 2016, which limited immunity given to sovereign states for their participation in international acts of “terror”. Following the passing of the law, over 850 families of victims and 1,500 injured Americans filed a lawsuit seeking retribution from the Saudis for the role they believe the kingdom played in the 9/11 attacks. 

This poses a serious challenge to the nations’ bilateral relations.

Recently, it has been reported that the ambitious prince hopes to offer five percent of the two-trillion-dollar state-owned oil giant, Aramco, to the international market, as part of his 2030 economic vision. Trump jumped on this opportunity tweeting “Would very much appreciate Saudi Arabia doing their IPO of Aramco with the New York Stock Exchange. Important to the United States!”

However, the future of this plan looks uncertain, as Aramco’s lawyers warn about litigation risks associated with JASTA. As both sides, Saudi and American, continue to avoid the elephant in the room, there is a good chance that their ambitious policies will be severely restricted.

Also, despite Trump’s apparent support for the crown prince, Washington is not yet completely convinced by bin Salman’s “reformist” credentials. One camp in the American capital believes that the 2030 vision and liberal-looking policies of the bin Salman may alter the perceptions of the American public about the kingdom, allowing the relations between the two countries to prosper once again. But others remain sceptical, believing the crown prince’s reform promises to be hasty – They argue that with bulging crises on the northern, southern, and eastern borders of the country, and an unpredictable domestic environment, bin Salman will not succeed in bringing substantial change and reform to the country. They even fear that bin Salman’s aggressive policies may cause the US to lose an important ally in the Middle East in the long term.

Bin Salman’s ongoing visit to the US is another sign that we are witnessing the beginning of a new chapter in the relations between Riyadh and Washington. Trump and bin Salman seem to still be in their honeymoon phase, filled with hopes and promises. But as the US courts proceed in their justice-seeking efforts for 9/11 victims, sobering moments will likely to ensue, challenging both nations’ limits of compromise.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.