Saudi Arabia has warned it would sell off American assets worth hundreds of billions of dollars if Congress passes a bill allowing the Saudi government to be held responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The warning, which sounds very much like blackmail, was delivered by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir last month during a visit to Washington.
However, Riyadh’s resolve to actually deliver on the threat is suspect, as selling off those assets would be technically challenging and would damage the dollar, against which the Saudi national currency is pegged.
The Obama administration has lobbied Congress to block the bill’s passage, according to administration officials and congressional aides from both parties, and the Saudi threats have been the subject of intense discussions in recent weeks between lawmakers and officials from the State Department and the Pentagon. The officials have warned senators of diplomatic and economic fallout from the legislation.
Adel al Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, delivered the kingdom’s message personally last month during a trip to Washington, telling lawmakers that Saudi Arabia would be forced to sell up to $750 billion in treasury securities and other assets in the United States before they could be in danger of being frozen by American courts.
Several outside economists are skeptical that the Saudis will follow through, saying that say such a sell-off would be difficult to execute and would end up crippling the kingdom’s economy. But the threat is another sign of the escalating tensions between Saudi Arabia and the United States.
The administration, which argues that the legislation would put Americans at legal risk overseas, has been lobbying so intently against the bill that some lawmakers and families of Sept. 11 victims are infuriated. In their view, the Obama administration has consistently sided with the kingdom and has thwarted their efforts to learn what they believe to be the truth about the role some Saudi officials played in the terror plot.
“It’s stunning to think that our government would back the Saudis over its own citizens,” said Mindy Kleinberg, whose husband died in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 and who is part of a group of victims’ family members pushing for the legislation.
President Obama will arrive in Riyadh on Wednesday for meetings with King Salman and other Saudi officials. It is unclear whether the dispute over the Sept. 11 legislation will be on the agenda for the talks.
A spokesman for the Saudi embassy did not return a message seeking comment.
Saudi officials have long denied that the kingdom had any role in the Sept.11 plot, and the 9/11 Commission found “no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded the organization.” But critics have noted that the commission’s narrow wording left open the possibility that less senior officials or parts of the Saudi government could have played a role. Suspicions have lingered, partly because of the conclusions of a 2002 congressional inquiry in the attacks that cited some evidence that Saudi officials living in the United States at the time had a hand in the plot.
Those conclusions, contained in 28 pages of the report, still have not been released publicly.
The dispute comes as bipartisan criticism is growing in Congress about Washington’s alliance with Saudi Arabia, for decades a crucial American ally in the Middle East and half of a partnership that once received little scrutiny from lawmakers. Last week, two senators introduced a resolution that would put restrictions on American arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which have expanded dramatically during the Obama administration.
Families of the Sept. 11 victims have used the courts to try to hold members of the Saudi royal family, Saudi banks and charities liable because of what the plaintiffs charged was Saudi financial support for terrorism. These efforts have largely been stymied, in part because of a 1976 law that gives foreign nations some immunity from lawsuits in American courts.
The Senate bill is intended to make clear that the immunity given to foreign nations under the law should not apply in cases where nations are found culpable for terrorist attacks that kill Americans on United States soil. If the bill were to pass both houses of Congress and be signed by the president, it could clear a path for the role of the Saudi government to be examined in the Sept. 11 lawsuits.
Obama administration officials counter that weakening the sovereign immunity provisions would put the American government, along with its citizens and corporations, in legal risk abroad because other nations might retaliate with their own legislation. Secretary of State John Kerry told a Senate panel in February that the bill, in its current form, would “expose the United States of America to lawsuits and take away our sovereign immunity and create a terrible precedent.”
The bill’s sponsors have said that the legislation is purposely drawn very narrowly —-involving only attacks on American soil — to reduce the prospect that other nations might try to fight back.
In a closed-door briefing on Capitol Hill on March 4, Anne W. Patterson, an assistant secretary of state, and Andrew Exum, a top Pentagon official on Middle East policy, told staff members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that American troops and civilians could be in legal jeopardy if other nations decide to retaliate and strip Americans of immunity abroad. They also discussed the Saudi threats specifically, laying out the impacts if Saudi Arabia made good on their economic threats.
Edwin M. Truman, a fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said he thought the Saudis were likely making an “empty threat.” Selling hundreds of billions of dollars of American assets would not only be technically difficult to pull off, he said, but it likely would cause global market turmoil for which the Saudis would be blamed.
Last week, co-Chairman of the 9/11 commission Senator Bob Graham said that the White House called to inform him that 28 redacted pages from the 9/11 Report were going to be declassified and made public.
The announcement, which the White House has yet to confirm, comes after the former elected official fought for years to gain public release of the documents.