Should Americans be able to sue other governments? Gulf states say no.

A bill that would permit exactly that, intended to allow Sept. 11 victims' families to sue Saudi Arabia, has passed through Congress. It was condemned Monday by the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Jim Young/Reuters/File
The 'Tribute in Lights' are seen over the skyline in New York on September 10, 2011. Picture taken with a fisheye lens.

The head of the Saudi-dominated Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – a collection of six Gulf Arab states – released a statement Monday condemning the latest development in the journey of JASTA, a bill passed Friday by the House of Representatives that would allow families of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attack victims to sue the Saudi Arabian government.

The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, passed by the Senate in May and the House on Friday, was originally conceived amid speculation that some Saudi officials had connections to attackers who had a hand in the attacks of 2001, which took the lives of almost 3,000. If made into law, JASTA would allow Americans to sue foreign governments suspected of ties to terror attacks on US soil. Yet President Barack Obama has long said he would veto the legislation, citing concerns that it could usher in a torrent of similar claims from abroad against the US government.

The proposed law is "contrary to the foundations and principles of relations between states and the principle of sovereign immunity enjoyed by states," Abdullatif al-Zayani, the secretary-general of the GCC, said in a Monday statement. 

The United Arab Emirates, a member of the GCC but one of Washington’s closest allies in the region, also expressed concern. 

"This law is not equal with the foundations and principles of relations among states, and represents a clear violation given its negative repercussions and dangerous precedents," Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the federation's foreign minister, said in the Emirates' own statement. 

Of the 19 hijackers involved in the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, 15 were Saudi nationals. This July, Congress released declassified pages of a report into 9/11, which rekindled suggestions that the Saudi officials had ties to some of the hijackers, though further US investigations found no evidence of the claims. 

Nonetheless, lawmakers had been under pressure from victims’ families to pass the bill before Sunday’s 15th anniversary of the attacks.

The move represents the latest chapter in an increasingly strained relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States, precipitated not least by the nuclear deal with Iran and the consequent easing of sanctions – a development that Saudi Arabia fears will allow its regional rival to prosper and grow in influence.

Most recently, Congress itself has again been at odds with Riyadh. A group of 64 House members signed a letter in August asking Mr. Obama to delay a $1.15 billion arms sale to the kingdom, citing concerns over humanitarian costs in the Yemen conflict, in which the Saudis are heavily involved.

Proponents of JASTA argue that if Saudi Arabia played no part in the Sept. 11 attacks, then its government has nothing to fear. Yet others say that the repercussions for the US government could be “inestimable,” as The Los Angeles Times argued in an editorial. 

“Expect to see civil claims by victims of collateral damage in military attacks,” wrote the Times’ editorial board, “lawsuits by people caught up in the nation's post-9/11 detention policies, including Guantanamo Bay, and challenges over atrocities committed by US-backed Syrian rebels.”

If Obama vetoes the bill, the Republican-majority House and Senate could override him, so long as two-thirds still support the legislation. Having passed the House through a voice vote, however, with no recorded individual votes or objections, it could be easier for Democrats to support the president without appearing to reverse course.

This report includes material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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