Congress should strengthen, not strain, security & economic ties with Saudi Arabia

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This Sept. 11 marks the fifteenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on America. It will be a sad day for all Americans, especially for the victims’ families who have suffered in ways that others can only imagine.

Having lived and worked in New Jersey, where entire communities were traumatized by this senseless slaughter, I share the anguish and anger of those who were touched by the tragedy.

{mosads}In addition to pursuing any remaining criminal cases against the perpetrators of 9/11, Americans should channel our anger into winning the war against Al Qaeda, ISIL and other violent extremists.

But we must not be sidetracked by self-defeating gestures that would overturn established principles of international law while undermining our national security and economic interests in Saudi Arabia and around the world.

Unfortunately, that is just what the proposed Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) would do. Approved by the United States Senate and soon to be the subject of a hearing by the House Judiciary Committee, JASTA would allow American citizens harmed by a terrorist attack on US soil to sue a foreign government official for any involvement in the incident. JASTA’s intent:  to permit Americans to sue Saudi Arabian government officials in US courts for 9/11.

This would erode a basic, bedrock doctrine of international law, “sovereign immunity,” which forbids one government from sitting in judgment of another. Yes, there are some exceptions to this doctrine, including treaties and trade agreements. Also, Congress has established exceptions to “sovereign immunity” for countries on the State Department’s list of “state sponsors of terrorism.” But Saudi Arabia isn’t one of these countries.

By weakening our protections for other countries here at home, this legislation would endanger Americans diplomats, service members and, conceivably, officials in the US who are involved in controversial actions abroad, from conducting airstrikes against terrorists to defending US interests in international waters. Imagine if these US diplomats, officials and service members had to stand trial in civil lawsuits in foreign courtrooms under foreign laws. Make no mistake: Americans have much more to lose than any other nation from watering down the doctrine of “sovereign immunity.”

While JASTA would make bad law, it is even worse foreign policy. Far from encouraging Americans and Saudis to sue each other, we should strengthen, not strain, the security partnership and business relationships between our countries. 

With terrorists on the march in the Middle East and North Africa, Saudi Arabia is itself a target, as demonstrated by the recent wave of suicide attacks in the Kingdom. But it is also a force for fighting extremism and stabilizing the region. As the custodian of the two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina , Saudi Arabia is rallying other Muslim countries to oppose extremism. Late last year, the Kingdom organized the 34-country Islamic Coalition to combat terrorism and counter ideological fanaticism by sharing information, intelligence and equipment.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is a close partner of the United States on counterterrorism, conducting air strikes in conjunction with the US military on ISIL targets in Syria and working with the US to stop the flow of funds to terrorist organizations. Sharing intelligence with the US in real time, the Saudi Financial Intelligence Unit reports, analyzes and disseminates crucial financial information within the Kingdom and worldwide.

On the home-front, the Saudis are monitoring religious sermons and arresting clerics who advocate for violence.  Just as importantly, the Saudis are taking strong steps to prevent extremists from using charities as money-machines for terrorism. Through tough new regulations, the Saudis are requiring every charity to consolidate its banking in one core account, prohibiting charities from conducting cash disbursements or issuing ATM or credit cards, forbidding transfers of funds outside the Kingdom and halting collections of cash contributions in mosques or public places.     

In an era of falling oil prices, Saudi Arabia cannot stabilize the region as long as it relies on fossil fuels and stagnant, state-owned enterprises. That is why the Kingdom is diversifying and privatizing its economy, and why Americans should be seeking opportunities to invest in Saudi Arabia, not file lawsuits against it.

One of the 20 largest economies and leading investment destinations in the world, Saudi Arabia has attracted $10.1 billion in American investment and purchases $25 billion a year in American products and services, including cars and trucks, aircraft, machinery, electrical equipment and medical and optical instruments. Now that the Kingdom has adopted an ambitious program, Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, to encourage private enterprise and develop new industries, there will be new business opportunities for Americans for exports and investment in sectors including technology, healthcare and construction.

From finding new markets for American products to freezing funds for the international terrorists, a stronger relationship with Saudi Arabia will strengthen US economic and security goals. We don’t need more litigation – we need more imagination — to find new ways to work with this longstanding strategic partner. 


Edward Burton is the president and CEO of the US-Saudi Arabian Business Council. He has served as the Commercial Attaché at the American Embassy in Saudi Arabia, the director of the US Export Assistance Center in Philadelphia and the director of the State of New Jersey’s International Trade Office. He is the author of the upcoming book “Business and Entrepreneurship in Saudi Arabia,” to be published by John Wiley & Sons (October 2016).

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