Former top Saudi intelligence officer and US ally Saad al-Jabri accused, on August 6, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) of sending a team of agents to Canada to assassinate him. In a federal lawsuit filed in Washington, al-Jabri alleged that “there is virtually no one defendant bin Salman wants dead” more than him because of his relationship with the American government as “a longtime trusted partner of senior US intelligence officials.”
The move can be seen as the latest episode of a series of actions that have shredded the kingdom’s image, including the war in Yemen, the detainment of royal family members at the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton hotel and Lebanon’s then Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, the Gulf crisis with Qatar, the diplomatic tensions with Canada, the imprisonment of activists as well as clerics, and Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder inside his country’s consulate in Istanbul two years ago.
“It impacts the bilateral relationship between Washington and Riyadh and introduces an embarrassing level of confrontation.”
“Politically, this is an important case. It impacts the bilateral relationship between Washington and Riyadh and introduces an embarrassing level of confrontation between the legal system in the United States and the establishment in Saudi Arabia. However, this case is unlikely to go forward,” Khalil Jahshan, Executive Director of Arab Center Washington DC, told Inside Arabia.
“Based on precedent, US courts tend to proceed with the early steps in these types of lawsuits. But at a certain point, they stop when they feel the lawsuit has become too political or impacts negatively on national security. In addition, the lawsuit seems to be more of a PR campaign by al-Jabri aimed at embarrassing the Saudi government, so he can protect himself and his family, who are subject to pressure and arrest in Saudi Arabia. If that goal is achieved, I would not be surprised if al-Jabri drops the case.”
Al-Jabri’s case could lead the US Congress to put pressure on President Donald Trump’s administration for its unconditional support to the Saudi Crown Prince. For instance, last month, four bipartisan senators urged Trump in a letter to help secure the freedom of al-Jabri’s children, Omar and Sarah, who were detained in March, calling it a “moral obligation” to stand by a man who aided American intelligence for years.
In response, the US State Department said in a letter that it has repeatedly requested that Saudi Arabia “clarify the status and nature” of the detention of al-Jabri’s children. “The strength of the US-Saudi partnership — which has benefited both nations for more than seven decades — permits us to engage in frank discussions in areas where we disagree,” wrote Ryan Kaldahl, acting Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Legislative Affairs at the State Department. “The Department, in coordination with the White House and interagency colleagues, will continue to engage Saudi counterparts to resolve this situation in a manner that honors Dr. al-Jabri’s service to our country.”
The US president’s only redline appears to be American lives.
However, it remains to be seen if Trump’s unconditional support to MbS would change in any way. That’s because the US president’s only redline appears to be American lives. For example, it is doubtful that Trump would get himself involved in a war with Iran regardless of the extent to which the Riyadh-Tehran tensions worsen.
This was evident in the US response — despite Trump’s verbal threat that the United States was “locked and loaded to hit back”— after the September 2019 attack on the facilities of Saudi oil giant Aramco, which although the Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for, was carried out with Iranian weapons and fingers were pointing toward Tehran.
When the President was asked if he had promised the Saudis that the U.S. would protect them, he said, “I haven’t promised the Saudis that. We have to sit down with the Saudis and work something out. And the Saudis want very much for us to protect them, but I say, well, we have to work. That was an attack on Saudi Arabia, and that wasn’t an attack on us.”
But when it comes to issues such as Yemen’s war or Khashoggi’s murder, they don’t appear to be a priority for Trump.
“The al-Jabri case is a great embarrassment for Saudi Arabia and the US. Indeed, the incident offers a stark reminder of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. However, the Trump administration cares nothing of human rights, so another scandal will not change its unthinking embrace of the Saudi royal family,” Doug Bandow, senior fellow at Cato Institute, told Inside Arabia. “In contrast, Democrats are likely to redouble their criticisms of Riyadh and efforts to halt arms sales.”
“The Trump administration cares nothing of human rights, so another scandal will not change its unthinking embrace of the Saudi royal family.”
On August 7, the US District Court for the District of Columbia — where the lawsuit was filed — issued a summons for MbS. “If you fail to respond, judgment by default will be entered against you for the relief demanded in the complaint,” the summons stated.
“The Crown Prince will lobby President Trump and Secretary of State Pompeo to submit a ‘Suggestion of Immunity’ to the district court arguing the Crown Prince is immune from suit because he is a head of state or its equivalent. A ‘Suggestion of Immunity’ is not binding on the court,” Bruce Fein, a former associate deputy attorney general and general counsel of the Federal Communications Commission under President Reagan, told Inside Arabia.
It should also be noted that if Trump loses the upcoming presidential elections in November, Joe Biden would surely loosen the ties with the kingdom and not pursue the same sort of unconditional support to Riyadh. Bandow noted that if Biden wins the election, “he is more likely to act on his campaign promise to treat the kingdom like a pariah and halt weapons sales.”