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Relatives of 9/11 victims who filed a lawsuit seeking to pin blame on the Saudi royal family for financing attacks against the United States just acquired a significant new opponent: the Obama administration.
A Department of Justice brief (PDF link) filed with the Supreme Court on Friday argues that the Saudi royal family is party to a sovereign state and cannot be sued in American courts.
Obama will visit Riyadh on June 3 in a surprise addition to his scheduled three-day trip to Egypt, Germany and France, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said on Tuesday.
Saudi Arabia, the world's top oil exporter, is a staunch U.S. ally in the region and potentially a key player in the drive for a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which Obama has declared a top foreign policy priority.
The Obama administration has embraced the 2002 Arab peace initiative, a proposal authored by Saudi Arabia that offered Israel normal ties with all Arab states in return for a full withdrawal from the lands it seized in the 1967 Middle East war, creation of a Palestinian state and a "just solution" for Palestinian refugees.
The lawsuit, Federal Insurance Co. v. Kingdom Of Saudi Arabia, was initiated in 2003 by a consortium of insurance companies seeking to recover more than $300 billion for losses incurred by the 9/11 attacks.
The Saudi princes cited in the claims were:
* Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, president of SHC, who was warned in 2000 of his organization's ties to al Qaeda;
* Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, the designated successor to King Abdullah, who received warnings as early as 1994 that some Muslim charitable groups were fronts for al Qaeda;
* Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, who as Saudi Minister of the Interior monitors and controls the charities operating in Saudi Arabia;
* Prince Turki al-Faisal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, who was the director of the Kingdom's Department of General Intelligence ("DGI") until August 2001;
* Prince Mohamed al Faisal al Saud, who unlike the other princes named is not a government official but a bank manager alleged to have knowingly provided material sponsorship to international terrorism.
The United States, in a May 27, 2007 memo, asked Canada to put diplomatic pressure on both Saudi Arabia and South Africa, a Commonwealth partner.
American diplomats spoke with two senior Foreign Affairs officials, including senior director Yves Beaulieu, and asked Ottawa to join the Bush administration in issuing a joint diplomatic rebuke, or demarche, to the two countries.
"Beaulieu reacted positively to the suggestion that the United States and Canada jointly demarche Pretoria and Riyadh," said the cable
"Beaulieu said although he was not surprised to hear about Taliban fundraising in South Africa and Saudi Arabia, the government of Canada would need more information about specific (U.S. government) concerns before they could agree to jointly demarche other governments or independently demarche the UAE."
It's long been suspected the Taliban have relied on sympathetic Saudi charities to bankroll them.
The reference to the UAE, the United Arab Emirates, is also not a surprise, because intelligence officers have for years expressed concern about possible laundering of opium cash through the oil-rich emirates. The allegations have never been proven.
The revelation about South Africa is new, though, and raises questions about how wide and insidious the Taliban financing network might be.