First the US president, now American law-firms, have their sights firmly set on Saudi Arabia’s depleted coffers
By Abdel Bari Atwan
Just two days after Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad Bin-Salman ended his supposedly ‘historic’ visit to Washington, where he was feted by President Donald Trump and his administration, a lawsuit was filed against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in a US federal court on behalf of some 800 relatives of victims of the 9/11 attacks, accusing it of funding al-Qaeda and demanding financial compensation for the losses they incurred.
The 135-page document drawn up for the plaintiffs by the law firm Kreisler & Kreisler charges that Saudi non-profit organizations and government agencies established ties with al-Qaeda leader Osama bin-Laden and that the Saudi government knew that three of the 9/11 hijackers were members of his organization.
Most potentially damaging, it accuses Saudi Arabia of duplicity: ‘It presented a public face to the United States and other Western countries of a nation fighting al-Qaeda and terrorism while at the same time, as detailed herein, Saudi government actors gave al-Qaeda substantial material support and resources.’
The lawsuit is expected to be the first of several, with more to follow. It was made possible by the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) which was passed overwhelmingly by both houses of the US Congress last year with little debate. Some of the evidence it cites is based on FBI investigations, including that Saudi embassy officials in Germany assisted Muhammad Atta, who led the attackers, and counterparts at the Washington embassy provided funds to fellow hijackers Salem al-Hazmi and Khaled al-Mehdar.
The Saudi authorities thought they had done enough to counter JASTA. They spent tens of millions of dollars on the services of more than a dozen American public relations and lobbying firms, and Adel al-Jubair, the foreign minister and former ambassador in Washington, was sent to the US for two months to lobby members of congress and argue the case against the bill. Even after it was passed, they thought that the arrival of Donald Trump at the White House would result in the law being blocked or amended.
But the lawsuit makes plain that all these efforts and hopes have come to nothing.
The legal system in the West in general and the US in particular is completely independent of the political authorities, as was recently illustrated by the repeated court rulings defying Trump’s Muslim travel ban.
There are also many big law firms in the US, and several European countries, that specialize in filing lucrative lawsuits on behalf of ‘victims’ on a no-win no-fee basis, demanding huge sums in compensation and raking off a proportion for themselves. This is presumably the basis on which Kreindler & Kreindler is operating, as most relatives of 9/11 victims would be unlikely to be able to afford the multi-million dollar costs of such a case.
The firm in question did not say how much it would be demanding as compensation for its clients. But it is sufficient to note that the State of New York alone estimates its losses as a result of the material damage to the World Trade Centre and other buildings and facilities, plus the business and commercial losses sustained due t the attacks, at around $100 billion. There have been unofficial estimates that the total compensation bill could reach four trillion dollars.
We do not know whether Prince Muhammad bin-Salman discussed this issue with Trump when he met him at the White House – an encounter described by the Saudi media as ‘historic’ and setting the stage for a new strategic relationship between the two countries.
What we do know, however, is that Trump does not have the legal authority to interfere with the courts. Nor did successive British prime ministers when Riyadh demanded that they deport UK-based Saudi dissidents Muhammad al-Masaari and Saad al-Faqih, and threatened to cancel lucrative arms deals if they didn’t.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia now finds itself being subjected to extortion on two fronts in the United States: from Trump, who wants it to finance infrastructure projects in the US in return for the American military protection it has enjoyed for decades; and from the American legal system in the form of demands for massive financial compensation.
But where will the kingdom get the money from? Its coffers have been depleted, much of its financial reserve has evaporated, oil prices are low, and it is continuing to wage costly wars of attrition directly in Yemen and by proxy in Syria.
The answer may have to lie in the planned sell-off of state assets, particularly a portion of the national oil company Saudi Aramco — and perhaps even the oil reserves that lie beneath the ground.