Fifteen years down the road, families of 9/11 victims continue to demand justice. They are suing Saudi Arabia for allegedly providing material support to al Qaeda to carry out the terrorist attack. Democratic front-runners for the White House, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, have backed the legal action although Clinton, being a lawyer, must be well aware that the case will be tossed out on grounds of admissibility.
Meanwhile, Congress is actively pursuing the matter on their behalf by attempting to enact legislation. Obama has already made his opposition to the affair public after Saudi Arabia threatened to sell off its US assets worth $750 billion in Treasury securities, not to mention billions more invested by its citizens there. Riyadh’s threat is being read as an admission of its role in 9/11, be it financing or planning.
Strained US-Saudi Arabia relations
The controversy is all about a 28-page section of the Joint Congressional Inquiry Report into the 9/11 attacks that was sealed permanently on orders of the Bush administration. The chapter dwelled on the possibility of Saudi government’s possible links to the tragic events.
Nowadays, former Senator Bob Graham is leading the campaign to unfreeze the ‘potentially damning’ evidence despite later probes and official leaks terming the section’s content as speculative and superficial. Barring the banned part, the Joint Congressional Inquiry and later formed 9/11 Commission concluded that Saudi Arabia was neither aware nor were behind the terrorist acts on American soil. Since then, it has remained a close and shut case. Democrats are enthusiastic about the lawsuit almost the same way they were for a nuclear deal and eventual thaw with Iran. Republicans are more cautious in taking a position on the issue yet.
This Tuesday, the Saudis hosted President Obama. While every Gulf leader was warmly welcomed at the airport and televised live on the state television, an exception was made for Obama. A low level official received him and the Saudi TV was too busy to cover it.
Obama’s just-concluded summit with the Gulf rulers ended as expected. There were woes of longstanding friendship. There too was statement to fight Daesh together. The GCC countries have no immediate plans to cancel arms’ deals with the US in the short run.
Kuwait and Qatar alone are awaiting bureaucratic approval for fighter jets worth about $7billion. Saudi Arabia has so far bought US military hardware worth $95 billion. Make no mistake in assuming that the military deal can help bridge the ideological gap between the Arabian Peninsula and America.
An arms sales package is likely to follow, as some of the most militarised and militarily incompetent states in the world will want to add to their arsenal. Yet no talk of historical alliances and arms sales can bridge the clash of perspectives between the two sides.
Challenging sovereign decisions
The Gulf nations are least likely to have a consensus approach to their relations with the US with Oman and Qatar pursuing independent policies. However, they won’t drift too far from the Saudi position. The GCC states want to do business with the incumbent US leader, be it a Democrat or a Republican.
Amid regional turbulence in the Middle East, the US has been distancing itself from the region after easing strains with Iran. America is already self-sufficient in managing its appetite for Gulf petrochemicals.
For the GCC, the inconvenient reality remains delicate and fraught relations with Washington that it used to count on for decades. Already, Obama’s ‘free rider’ is taking matters in its own hand by jointly crushing rebels in Yemen and stitching together an alliance against terror.
If the 9/11 victims’ families manage to legislate or sue Saudi Arabia, the relations are only going to worsen. Neither Saudi Arabia nor Pakistan can overlook the draft legislation in the US legislature. Though the Saudis are the current and obvious target for now, it may have implications for Pakistan. At the heart of the matter is suing a state if its citizen is involved in an act of terror on foreign soil. Does that ring alarm bells?
It may seem absurd to punish a state for the free will of its citizen; the desperate search is on to ingeniously create a legal space for it. Besides the September 11 victims’ families, the Israeli, Indian and Armenian lobbies will gain strategic mileage if the cleverly crafted legislation gets to see the light of day. Sanity may prevail at the White House and it can repel the danger of torpedoing US foreign relations.
Naveed Ahmad is a Pakistani investigative journalist and academic with extensive reporting experience in the Middle East and North Africa. He is based in Doha and Istanbul. He tweets @naveed360