We taste the spices of Arabia, yet never feel the scorching sun which brings them forth.
-Inscribed around the rotunda of the Jefferson Reading Room in the US Library Congress, above the figure of Commerce
The long-overdue release of the classified 28 pages of a 2002 congressional inquiry into the 9/11 attacks represents the fullest public accounting of evidence that certain Saudi nationals potentially assisted some of the hijackers. Any evidence, however, that the Saudi government may have knowingly provided assistance at this point remains circumstantial and unproven, a perspective shared by a 2005 FBI-CIA memo, which was released the same day as the 28 pages. Former Senator Bob Graham, who was a member of the congressional inquiry, along with Terry Strada, the national chairwoman for 9/11 Families United for Justice Against Terrorism, have riposted that the matter of Saudi involvement is long from concluded and that more classified information needs to be issued.
While the 28 pages may provide little closure on how the largest terrorist attack on US soil transpired, its publication is yet another indication that the primacy of Saudi Arabia as irreproachable Middle East ally is in question. The declassification of the 28 pages comes on the heels of other developments that have undermined the carefully manicured image of Saudi Arabia as stalwart and stable ally, such as: the signing of a nuclear accord with Iran in 2015- raising the prospect of increased cooperation with the kingdom’s chief rival; the distribution of a cache of Saudi foreign cables discussing internal matters, which includes monitoring its citizens and attempts to combat critical voices in the media abroad; the unverified court testimony of Zacharias Moussaoui (the “20th hijacker”) detailing potential Saudi governmental involvement in 9/11; a war in Yemen that has caused thousands of civilian deaths and led to a humanitarian crisis, and international concern over the execution of 47 individuals on terrorism charges.
One consequence of these developments is the introduction of bipartisan legislation by members of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee to curtail American arms support to Saudi Arabia for use in its Yemen campaign. In another case, the U.S. House of Representatives only narrowly passed a bill allowing the transfer of cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia, evidence that lawmakers are beginning to approach this issue with greater care. Further, the U.S. Senate recently passed a bill that would allow the Saudi Arabian government to be held legally liable for any potential role in the 9/11 attacks, though a last-minute loophole in the bill will likely diminish its impact. Ongoing concerns continue to be expressed over the country’s funding of extremist groups and mosques worldwide. Following the massacre at an Orlando nightclub last month, for example, Hillary Clinton declared that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries are apathetic toward their citizens’ financial support of violent extremism- not the first time the presumptive Democratic nominee singled out Saudi Arabia on the campaign trail in such a manner.
Elsewhere relations with Saudi Arabia are undergoing a similar reappraisal. Last year Sweden decided not to renew a Saudi arms agreement maintained since 2005, largely from concern over the country’s human rights record. The United Kingdom withdrew a £5.9m bid for a prisons contract, after criticism of human rights abuses by both Tory and Labour officials. Belgium and the Netherlands have taken steps to end or limit arms sales to Saudi Arabia, while the EU passed a non-binding resolution for member countries to halt arm sales. The Canadian government proceeded with a controversial $15-billion arms deal (signed by the current government’s predecessor) only amidst a public outcry to annul it and a lawsuit arguing that the deal contravenes federal laws over prohibiting such sales to countries suspected of use against civilians or having a record of repeated human rights violations. Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion, even while taking responsibility for pushing through the arms deal, recognized the public concern by noting that the matter of selling arms to Saudi Arabia may be a question best left to the electorate.
Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister Adel al Jubeir may be correct in noting that “the surprise in the 28 pages is that there is no surprise,” but he would be hard-pressed to exhibit a similar lack of concern about the increased public scrutiny and shifting perceptions of Saudi Arabia’s role in the world. The Saudis instead have responded to the above developments with direct actions, threatened reprisals, and a spirited public relations campaign. The Saudi ambassador to Sweden was briefly recalled. The U.S. has been threatened with the selling of $750 billion worth of Saudi investments in this country, over the Senate’s 9/11 legal liability bill. In response to the Canadian arms deal imbroglio, Saudi Arabia defended its judicial system as one that “calls for preserving and protecting human rights,” even though Freedom House ranks it worst in all categories of its freedom index. Current Saudi state officials and ambassadors and former advisors have increasingly sought forcefully to defend their country’s actions and image to the public, referencing Saudi Arabia’s key role in combating international terrorism in alliance with the United States and United Nations. They seek to justify Saudi Arabia’s “Operation Decisive Storm” in Yemen as an effort to restore “legitimate order” and “combat a militia influenced by Iran.” This public relations campaign has been abetted by other attempts to promote a counter-narrative to voices critical of Saudi Arabia, including the use of PR firms to charm American policy-makers and journalists and the attempted censoring of voices critical of the country’s human rights record. In March 2016, the Saudi American Public Relations Affairs Committee (SAPRAC) was established, the first US-based lobbying group with the expressed task of working toward strengthening US-Saudi ties and highlighting opportunities for investment. “Vision 2030,” the plan promoted as an effort to diversify and modernize the Saudi economy that includes the partial privatization of the state-owned oil company Aramco, may reasonably be seen as part of this charm offensive, as bankers worldwide eye a piece of the prize.
Answers about Saudi Arabia’s involvement in 9/11 may prove elusive and forever unknown. But more than ever, questions are being raised and subsequent actions are being taken in relation to Saudi Arabia, extending far beyond what’s contained in the 28 pages of fourteen years ago and portending a new realignment of the US and other western countries’ long-standing relationship with this Middle East power.