US President Barack Obama heads to Saudi Arabia Tuesday amid tensions over congressional legislation which would potentially allow the royal government to be sued in American courts over the September 11, 2001 attacks.
The bipartisan bill has yet to make it to the Senate floor, but already it has triggered outrage in Riyadh and threatens to become a thorn in the already strained ties between Washington and its longstanding Gulf ally.
The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act would allow the families of 9/11 attack victims to sue the Saudi government for damages.
No official Saudi complicity in the Al-Qaeda attacks has been proven, and the White House opposes the draft law.
But Saudi Arabia has reportedly warned it could sell off several hundred billion dollars in American assets if Congress passes the measure.
The New York Times reported Saturday that Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told lawmakers in Washington last month the kingdom would be forced to sell up to $750 billion in treasury securities and other assets in the United States to avoid having them frozen by US courts.
Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly said in February that the congressional bill could “expose the United States of America to lawsuits and take away our sovereign immunity and create a terrible precedent.”
Obama arrives in Riyadh on Wednesday and holds meetings with King Salman and other Saudi officials. It is not clear whether the legislation, which was introduced last September and has support from senior US senators on both sides, will be part of the discussions.
Former senator Bob Graham, who co-chaired the 9/11 congressional inquiry, told CNN Saturday that he is “outraged but not surprised” by the Saudi warning on assets.
“The Saudis have known what they did in 9/11, and they knew that we knew what they did, at least at the highest levels of the US government,” Graham told the network’s Michael Smerconish.
Saudi Arabia has never been formally implicated in the attacks, but 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens
In February Zacarias Moussaoui, dubbed the 20th hijacker, told US lawyers that members of the Saudi royal family donated millions of dollars to Al-Qaeda in the 1990s.
The Saudi Embassy denied Moussaoui’s claims. But they brought renewed attention to the debate over whether the Obama administration should release a still-classified 28-page section of the 9/11 Commission Report.
The section, which Graham has sought to get released, is believed to focus on the role of foreign governments in the plot.