United States Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew, Saudi Arabia's Finance Minister Ibrahim Abdulaziz Al-Assaf, and other finance ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) pose for a photograph before their meeting in Riyadh. (Reuters Photo)
A United States law allowing victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks to sue Saudi Arabia could have "serious implications" for shared US-Gulf interests, a top Obama administration official said Thursday.
US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew made the comments at the opening of a meeting with finance ministers from the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, whose most powerful member is Saudi Arabia.
The US Congress voted overwhelmingly in September to override President Barack Obama's veto of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA).
Fifteen of the 19 Al-Qaeda hijackers who carried out the 9/11 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people were Saudi, but Riyadh denies any ties to the plotters.
JASTA allows attack survivors and relatives of terrorism victims to pursue cases against foreign governments in US federal court and to demand compensation if those governments are proven to bear some responsibility for attacks on US soil.
Lew said JASTA "would enact broad changes in long-standing international law regarding sovereign immunity that, if applied globally, could have serious implications for our shared interests."
He said the Obama administration has proven its determination to hold people responsible when they commit "horrendous acts", but "there are ways to do that without undermining important international legal principles."
In opposing the law, Obama said it would harm US interests by opening up the US to private lawsuits over its military missions abroad.
Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies have also expressed concern about erosion of sovereign immunity, a principle sacrosanct in international relations.
But the potential implications go far beyond the Gulf.
Some British, French and Dutch lawmakers have threatened retaliatory legislation to allow their courts to pursue US officials, threatening a global legal domino effect.
Riyadh and Washington have a decades-old relationship based on the exchange of American security for Saudi oil.
Lew later met King Salman to discuss economic and financial cooperation between the region and the US, the official Saudi Press Agency said.
Global oil prices have fallen by roughly half over the past two years, forcing crude-exporting Gulf states to raise local energy prices, control public sector wages, and reduce capital spending in response to fallen revenues.
On a visit to Saudi Arabia in April, Obama said the US and the Gulf would launch a new high-level economic dialogue with a focus on adjusting to lower oil prices.
"We consider today's meeting an informal start to that dialogue," Lew told his fellow ministers.
He noted "ambitious reform initiatives" such as Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030 plan for economic diversification and social change.
The American official also held talks with Salman's powerful son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who heads the kingdom's main economic coordinating body.
Lew was to discuss the fight against terrorist financing and would meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, Saudi Arabia's counter-terrorism chief whose experience is well-regarded by Washington.