President Donald Trump struck a series of deals with Saudi Arabia on his two-day visit but the kingdom is still anxiously waiting for him to deliver on something else: the repeal of a contentious 2016 law that allows relatives of 9/11 victims to sue the kingdom for their deaths.
Saudi officials have been quietly lobbying the administration and Congress to overturn the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, which led more than 800 families to file suit in New York in March.
The problem: Trump supported the bill and can’t do much to change it even if he wanted to. Still, Saudis are convinced the man they consider the ultimate salesman will make a deal.
“Do you think he will agree after all these activities we are doing for him?” asked Abdulnasser Gharem, a well-known Saudi artist who went to high school with two of the 9/11 hijackers in his hometown of Namas. Altogether, 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis.
Trump was welcomed like a member of the royal family in Riyadh over the weekend as he looked to restore relations with the country, which had soured during his predecessor’s tenure.
He was welcomed at the airport with a long red carpet, booming cannons and seven Saudi jets that flew overhead in V-formation, trailing red, white and blue smoke. A large image of Trump was beamed onto the exterior of his posh hotel. He even received the gold medallion, known as the King Abdul Aziz Collar, considered the kingdom’s highest honor.
Gharem, who has incorporated the 9/11 attacks into his artwork – he says he’s forbidden from showing it in Saudi Arabia – said Saudis, too, had suffered.
“We were the same; we were victims. Someone like me in the middle of nowhere was affected by what happened in New York, but no one was listening to us,” he said during an interview at his Riyadh studio.
U.S. and Saudi officials did not raise the issue publicly during Trump’s visit, the first stop on the first foreign trip of his presidency, and White House and National Security Council staff declined to comment on the issue. A Saudi official downplayed the topic, saying the kingdom had many pressing issues to discuss with U.S. officials, including the war in Syria, threats from nearby Iran and the civil war in Yemen.
But Saudi Arabia’s energy minister, Khalid al Falih, said in an interview in March that his nation believed that the new administration and Congress would eventually reverse course, and others here see it as a major source of conflict.
“If Trump supports the JASTA, he will lose the relationship with Saudi Arabia,” Mohammed Alhamza, a social researcher and writer, said bluntly through a translator during an interview in his Riyadh home, reflecting a view heard widely among Saudis.
“Do you expect Trump will pass JASTA after (billions of) Saudi riyals went to the United States?”Alhamza asked, a reference to a series of agreements Trump and Saudi King Salman had signed totaling $360 billion in weapons sales and economic development.
Like many Saudis, Alhamza thinks someone else helped the hijackers commit their sophisticated attacks and he is angry about a law he said was passed with no evidence that his nation was to blame and that could hurt his country economically.
The Saudi hijackers lived in Florida, California, Virginia and New Jersey before the attacks. All of them died in the worst terrorist attack in history, which killed nearly 3,000 people.
Trump, however, has little incentive to revisit the law, which is popular with his supporters who want someone punished for the terrorist attack. He’s lost leverage on Capitol Hill, even with members of his own party, as the White House remains embroiled in investigations into whether his campaign colluded with Russia to interfere in the presidential election.
“The image of an American president going to Saudi Arabia and coming back, and then asking the Congress to be nice to Saudi Arabia . . . I don’t think that’s going to sell very well,” said Bruce Riedel, a former senior adviser to the last four presidents who is now a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
Just before he left on his trip, a group representing the survivors and nearly 10,000 family members of victims wrote to Trump asking him to ignore any pressure from the Saudis to weaken the law and denounce their lobbying efforts.
“We expect that the Saudis will try to convince you to betray the 9/11 families,” wrote Terry Strada, national chair of the 9/11 Families & Survivors United for Justice Against Terrorism. “They will not put it that way, but will instead argue that you should ‘fix’ JASTA to eliminate ‘unintended consequences.’ Please do not let them get away with this dishonest approach. The Saudis do not want to ‘fix’ JASTA; they want you and Congress to pass a new law that arms them with a special defense against our lawsuits.”
Congress passed the bill last September. President Barack Obama vetoed the measure but lawmakers quickly overrode him, handing him the first veto override of his presidency in his final months in office.
Trump, then a presidential candidate, criticized Obama and distributed a statement by Rudy Giuliani, who had been the mayor of New York at the time of the attacks, calling Obama’s veto “an insult to those we lost on 9/11.” Trump has said little about the issue since he was inaugurated.
“Trump is limited in his ability to change this at this point,” said Jordan Tama, a professor in the School of International Service at American University in Washington. “Trump can’t do anything to stop what’s in place. There’s no prospect that would be repealed.”
The congressional action came after the release of a long-withheld 28-page section of the first U.S. report on the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks outlining possible links between the hijackers and Saudi officials that congressional investigators thought deserved more attention.
Saudi Arabia organized a massive lobbying to stop the legislation, including asking former military leaders, business executives with interests in Saudi Arabia and veterans to warn lawmakers about the consequences.
The accusation that Saudi Arabia should be held responsible for the attacks has prompted bitterness.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed al Jubeir made that clear in Washington last year when the debate was raging over the release of the 28 pages that had been originally withheld from the 9/11 Commission report on the attacks.
“The 28 pages were used . . . to cast aspersions on Saudi Arabia,” he said. “And everybody talked about once they are released it will show incontrovertible proof that Saudi Arabia is guilty. That Saudi Arabia was behind 9/11. That Saudi Arabia committed 9/11. Not true. The 28 pages don’t reveal anything.”