The Ever More ‘Complicated’ U.S. Relationship With Saudi Arabia

Just as President Obama prepares to travel to Riyadh, the kingdom has threatened to withdraw hundreds of billions in investments over a Senate bill related to 9/11.

President Obama and King Salman of Saudi Arabia meet in Riyadh in January 2015. (Carolyn Kaster / AP)

Almost exactly 11 years ago, in April 2005, Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia visited President George W. Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. It was a friendly occasion. The Bush family had long had good relations with the Saudi royal family. Though the war in Iraq was not going especially well, and the fallout concerned Riyadh, the Saudis were glad to see Saddam Hussein gone. The two men issued a statement hailing “our personal friendship and that between our nations.” They spoke about the need to “forge a new relationship between our two countries—a strengthened partnership that builds on our past partnership, meets today’s challenges, and embraces the opportunities our nations will face in the next sixty years.”

As President Obama heads to Saudi Arabia this week, that hope is unfulfilled, and relations between the two long-time allies are extremely strained. Bush is long out of office and mostly out of the political scene. Abdullah is dead, replaced by his half-brother Salman. The Saudi and American governments are at odds over a host of issues. The U.S. disapproves of the ongoing Saudi intervention in Yemen and was angry at Saudi Arabia’s execution of Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr early this year. The Saudis want the U.S. to do more in Syria, and, in particular, remain upset about the U.S. nuclear deal with Iran.

But the most pressing issue at hand is much older: It’s the September 11 attacks. As Obama prepares to travel, Congress is considering a bill that would open the door for Saudi interests to be held liable in court for the attacks. And as The New York Times reported over the weekend, the Saudi government is threatening to sell off nearly a trillion dollars in assets held in the U.S. if the bill passes.

The families of 9/11 victims have attempted to sue Saudi Arabia for playing a role in those attacks, but under a 1976 law, foreign governments are immune from many types of lawsuits in American courts. The bill under consideration now would tweak current law, so that foreign governments could be held liable if they are found culpable for attacks on U.S. soil that kill Americans. That very narrow scope—carefully calibrated to apply to few situations—could allow lawsuits to move forward.

The bill is unusually bipartisan, co-sponsored by members of both parties’ leadership teams: Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York, the presumptive leader when Senator Harry Reid retires, and Republican John Cornyn of Texas, the majority whip. It has the support of members from Ted Cruz to Chris Coons and Chuck Grassley to Kirsten Gillibrand. In the last couple of days, both Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders, the Democratic presidential candidates, have said they support it. It passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously in February.

Notably, however, the Obama administration has opposed the bill. The White House has lobbied Congress not to pass the bill, and Press Secretary Josh Earnest threatened a presidential veto on Monday, saying, “It's difficult to imagine a scenario in which the president would sign the bill as currently drafted.” In February, Secretary of State John Kerry told senators that the bill would “create a terrible precedent” that could lead to other countries opening up the U.S. government to lawsuits, despite the carefully tailored language. The Times reports that top State and Defense Department officials warned lawmakers in a closed-door briefing that the law could expose American soldiers and diplomats abroad.

The Saudi threat to withdraw investments has gotten more attention than those cautions, though. The assets in question include $750 billion in Treasury notes, plus some other investments, which the government fears could be frozen by U.S. courts in a lawsuit. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir reportedly delivered the threat in Washington in person. There’s a great deal of skepticism from economists and lawmakers about the threat, which could be damaging to the U.S. economy, but even worse for the Saudi economy, which has already been battered by the declining price of oil.

But wait, what role did Saudi Arabia play in the attacks? The 9/11 Commission report said this: “We have found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded the organization.” Just like the proposed change to sovereign foreign immunity, it’s a narrowly tailored sentence.

“You can’t provide the money for terrorists and then say, “I don’t have anything to do with what they're doing,’” Bob Kerrey, the former senator and a member of the 9/11 Commission, told 60 Minutes recently. “In general, the 9/11 Commission did not get every single detail of the conspiracy. We didn’t. We didn’t have the time, we didn’t have the resources. We certainly didn’t pursue the entire line of inquiry in regard to Saudi Arabia.”

Even then, there’s some information about Saudi involvement that has been gathered but is not yet public. A 2002 joint congressional investigation into intelligence failures ahead of 9/11 produced 28 pages that remain classified, and which are said to shed light on potential Saudi involvement in the attacks—perhaps by lower-level Saudi officials, or by elements of the government but not the government “as an institution.” Former Senator Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat who chaired the Senate side of the committee, has been pushing for years for the 28 pages to be released. Graham (no relation to this reporter) has fought a long and somewhat lonely battle, in part because he believes it could affect the victims’ families’ quest for restitution.

“No. 1, I think the American people deserve to know the truth of what has happened in their name,” he said last year. “No. 2 is justice for these family members who have suffered such loss and thus far have been frustrated largely by the U.S. government in their efforts to get some compensation.”

The pages were classified at the request of the FBI when produced. Graham and then-Representative Porter Goss, who was the House chair of the committee (and later directed the CIA) suggest there’s been no good reason given for keeping the document secret. Since the documents are classified, Graham won’t say what’s in them, but he has promised “a real smoking gun.”

Obama adviser Ben Rhodes, who worked on the 9/11 Commission, described how Saudis were involved to David Axelrod recently:

Without getting into that specifically because that's still classified, I think that it's complicated in the sense that, it's not that it was Saudi government policy to support Al Qaeda, but there were a number of very wealthy individuals in Saudi Arabia who would contribute, sometimes directly, to extremist groups, sometimes to charities that were kind of, ended up being ways to launder money to these groups. So, a lot of the funding—and you know Bin Laden himself was a wealthy Saudi—so a lot of the money, the seed money if you will, for what became Al Qaeda, came out of Saudi Arabia.

Between the increased tension with the Saudis, Obama’s upcoming trip, and immunity bill, there seems to be greater pressure and awareness to release the 28 pages now than ever before. Interestingly, the Saudis themselves have in the past backed those efforts. In 2003, then-Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal called for release so that Saudi Arabia could defend itself.

“We want to see them for two reasons,” he told CNN. “If there are accusations against Saudi Arabia, we want to respond to it, because we know we are clear of any accusations. But if there are any also information about possible supporters of terrorists, we want to know about them to take care of the situation.” (Saud al-Faisal died last summer, but his position is one the Saudis appeared to maintain as recently as 2014, though their current position on declassification is unclear.)

Now there’s some indication that the U.S. government might actually do it. Graham told the Tampa Bay Times last week that the White House told him a decision on whether to declassify was coming within the next one to two months. That means not before Obama’s trip to Riyadh—assuming the decision is to declassify at all.

While American officials have expressed ambivalence about the Saudi government before, noting the kingdom’s dismal record on human rights and involvement in exporting radical Islamism, there’s a new drumbeat of questions about the value of the relationship. The new mood suits both liberals who have always disliked Saudi Arabia and seen America’s ties to it as cynical, and conservatives who think the kingdom is doing too little to stop terrorism, and may in fact be fomenting it. But the U.S. still relies on the Saudi government for plenty of things, notably funneling support to Syrian rebels who oppose the Assad regime.

Despite the movement on the 28 pages and the immunity bill, it isn’t clear whether Obama will discuss them with the king this week, according to Earnest, the White House spokesman. Despite his lobbying against the current bill, and refusal thus far to declassify the congressional investigation, Obama has shown himself to be no fan of the Saudi government, and far more skeptical of the royal family than his predecessor. As Jeffrey Goldberg reported in his recent Atlantic cover story, the president complained to Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull about Saudi and Gulf influence producing stricter forms in Islam in places like Indonesia, where practice had been more liberal.

“Aren’t the Saudis your friends?,” Turnbull wondered, to which Obama replied: “It’s complicated.” Nor does it seem likely to get any simpler at the moment.