Beyond political noise, Saudi-US alliance’s robust

A bill – Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) – that would allow 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia could deal another blow to apparently uncertain bilateral relations between the Wahhabi kingdom and its main strategic ally the United States. The rapprochement between Washington and Tehran on the occasion of the Nuclear Deal had been badly welcomed in Riyadh already, and now there are people on the Hill who are working at making the Saudis liable for their involvement into what’s been the most lethal terrorist attack so far in US history: September 11, 2001.

Senators like Charles Schumer, Kirsten Gillibrand and Bob Graham said they wanted to make a classified 28-page section of the 9/11 commission report public which could provide the victims with enough elements to hold Saudi Arabia legally responsible thanks a to subsequent inapplicability of a 1976 law that gives countries like Saudi Arabia immunity from US lawsuits. In response, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir warned the Obama administration last month that if Congress passes the bill, his government could sell USD 750 billion in US assets. According to Cyceon, such a threat could likely be limited to simple rhetoric given that the ongoing drop in oil prices forced Saudi Arabia to cut public spending, and that Riyadh absolutely needs US assistance on worsening issues like Yemen.

“Saudi Arabia does have many financial interests in the US, and if Riyadh chooses to withdraw them all, it would likely harm the US economy. However I don’t see it happening considering that a sound financial strategy can’t be decided on the unique basis of political reasons, unless Saudi Arabia is willing to risk much of the value of its US investments,” explained Charles Rault, Cyceon Executive Director. “Nevertheless, growing criticism in the US against Saudi Arabia may well add to increasing bilateral tensions and lead Riyadh to either replace the US as its main ally or to do a U-turn in the way it expands its interests abroad,” Rault added.

Saudi Arabia was the US’ 19th largest goods export market and 8th largest supplier of goods imports in 2013. Saudi Arabia’s imports from the US more than halved from USD 51 billion in 2013 to USD 22 billion in 2015 while Saudi exports to the US remained quasi-unchanged. Saudi Arabia has been the largest US foreign military sales customer for years and its economic weight in the US economy could represent between USD 850 billion and USD 1.1 trillion as a whole.

Against this background, there could be some fierce fight around the 9/11 bill, but none of the two countries has any real interest today in disengaging from each other, especially not the US military industry. In case of ongoing tensions between them, business and geopolitical consequences would develop progressively, over the long term, as the US is turning itself to the Asia-Pacific region.