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Saad al-Jabri’s lawsuit spells further trouble for US-Saudi relationship

Dr. Saad al-Jabri is a former Saudi intelligence officer who fled the kingdom in 2017. Fears of what could transpire with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, consolidating power prompted al-Jabri to go into exile, first in Turkey, then the U.S., and eventually Canada.

Until 2015, al-Jabri served the previous Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who headed the Saudi Interior Ministry. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, al-Jabri formed close relationships with various institutions and individuals in the U.S. government and became a Saudi spymaster whom Washington deeply respected and valued. In 2010, he played a pivotal role in preventing al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula from carrying out an act of terrorism in Chicago which a former western intelligence officer claims could have led to hundreds of deaths.

On August 6, this former Saudi intelligence agent filed a lawsuit against MBS and other Saudi officials in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. According to the allegations, MBS deployed the “Tiger Squad” to Canada to kill al-Jabri within two weeks of other members of that same assassin squad murdering Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Al-Jabri accuses the Crown Prince of wanting him dead because the former intelligence officer is “uniquely positioned to existentially threaten” the Crown Prince’s “standing with the U.S. government” and “few alive know more about bin Salman than Dr. Saad.” The plaintiff also claims that the Saudi government has been holding his brother and two of his adult children in the kingdom in order to lure al-Jabri back to Saudi Arabia to face corruption charges stemming from his time serving bin Nayef.  

One day after al-Jabri filed this lawsuit, the federal court summoned MBS and the other defendants, officially notifying the Crown Prince and others that the plaintiff is suing them. Under U.S. law the defendants have a three-week span to respond. What we can expect is for Saudi Arabia’s government to heavily lobby Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to send the judiciary a letter with a suggestion of immunity. This would entail the State Department requesting that the court dismiss the case in order to serve U.S. foreign policy interests. If Pompeo takes that step, the court could choose to heed the request, or not. Nonetheless, even if the court dismisses al-Jabri’s case following a suggestion of immunity, a future U.S. president could reinstate the case.

At the time of writing, the Saudi government has not officially responded to this recently filed lawsuit. Neither has the Trump administration. Yet, on the same day al-Jabri filed the lawsuit, the State Department sent a strongly worded letter to Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. Signed by Ryan M. Kaldahl, the Acting Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Legislative Affairs, the letter called Dr. al-Jabri “a valued partner of the U.S. Government,” stated that Washington values his “contributions to keeping citizens safe,” and declared that any persecution of the former Saudi intelligence agent’s children is “unacceptable.”

Many experts are debating how this case may impact the U.S.’s longstanding partnership with Saudi Arabia. Although Trump has bent over backwards to give MBS the benefit of the doubt, this case will result in Washington’s diplomatic establishment and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle growing increasingly upset with Trump for not effectively establishing red lines for the Saudi Crown Prince. If Pompeo sends a letter with a suggestion of immunity to spare MBS from legal consequences — at least temporarily — such outrage will only increase.

This case adds to a host of episodes, including Khashoggi’s murder, the Yemen war, the blockade of Qatar, Riyadh’s diplomatic spat with Canada, the Lebanese Prime Minister’s “kidnapping,” Abdulrahman Sameer Noorah’s file, and rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul’s imprisonment and torture, which have harmed MBS’s image in Washington. All of these issues have caused U.S. diplomats, lawmakers, and Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden to become increasingly vocal about their problems with MBS’s behavior, both within the kingdom and abroad. In sum, aside from the White House, throughout the U.S. government there is less and less patience for Saudi Arabia’s crown prince.

With many prominent figures in Washington still upset about the Khashoggi affair, the alleged attempt to assassinate al-Jabri on MBS’s orders will further infuriate the establishment in America’s capital as well as voices in the media and human rights community. Although the Khashoggi and al-Jabri files have their obvious differences, in both cases MBS purportedly ordered the killing of Saudis residing in North America for political purposes. Trump may not care too much about MBS deploying the “Tiger Squad” to assassinate Saudis living outside the kingdom, but many in Washington and other western countries’ capitals find this conduct to be in violation of basic norms of international law and human decency.

The odds are good that al-Jabri’s lawsuit will result in more domestic pressure coming down on Trump to take a different line toward MBS. Like the Khashoggi saga, the Trump administration will see al-Jabri’s case as a major headache. Yet as long as Trump is in the Oval Office, it is doubtful that his administration would do much to change the fundamentals of its close relationship with MBS that various figures such as Trump’s advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner and Secretary of State Pompeo have helped to deepen. Ultimately, the U.S. President and Saudi Crown Prince see eye-to-eye on so many issues in the Middle East, chiefly the perceived Iranian threat, and share vested interests in continuing the arms sales that have come to be a defining pillar of the bilateral relationship. Therefore, al-Jabri’s case will probably not do much to sway Trump into exerting any real pressure on MBS to change his conduct. That is not to say, however, that the Saudis don’t have a big problem on their hands. They do because Trump will not remain president forever.

When looking to the post-Trump future, whenever that may start, there are major questions to raise about how Riyadh-Washington relations could change. In the words of Dr. Rami Khouri, a Senior Fellow at the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute, the current Saudi-U.S. relationship is “very narrow in terms of its links to the White House” and “in a moment of historic change.” Put simply, MBS and those in his inner circle must be extremely nervous about Biden becoming the U.S.’s 46th president in January for multiple reasons. Two key variables in the equation which are currently unknown will matter significantly.

First, what would a White House led by Biden do to try and change the Saudi Crown Prince’s behavior? Second, with Biden conducting a foreign policy that is less friendly to MBS, how would the Saudis deal with this new leadership in the U.S.? Depending the answers to these two questions, the partnership that the House of Saud and the United States established in the 1940s could face some extremely challenging times ahead.

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