WASHINGTON (Dispatches) -- A lawsuit alleging Saudi involvement in the 9/11 attack is overshadowing Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman's economic and political plans.
Saudi Arabia is attempting to move its economy away from dependence on oil, to deconstruct its image as a Wahhabi society and portray its autocratic rulers as reformists.
In 2016, the U.S. Senate overruled then-President Barack Obama to pass Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), a law allowing civil lawsuits by victims of "international terrorism" to proceed in U.S. courts against sovereign states.
The bill opened the door for the families of the 9/11 victims to go after Saudi Arabia over its alleged role in the attacks.
While Riyadh maintains that it has nothing to do with the Al-Qaeda militants, U.S. District Judge George Daniels in New York gave a green light in March for a lawsuit against the Saudi government to proceed.
Beyond damaging the kingdom's image, the court case threatens Saudi economic interests, namely the plans to sell a 5 percent stake in Saudi Aramco, the state's oil company.
Lawyers had warned the kingdom against listing Aramco's initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange, the Financial Times reported last year.
Saudi Arabia has denied that it is suspending the sale, which aims to raise $100 billion in cash to boost other sectors of the economy. But the IPO's delay is apparent.
"This dampens the Saudi wish to invest in the United States, considering that investments in the United States is one of the pillars of the Saudi economic diversification plan," Imad Harb, director of research and analysis at Arab Center Washington DC, told Middle East Eye.
"Economic relations do spill over to political relations. This is why Saudi Arabia is very concerned about it."
He added that the lawsuit also harms the U.S. public's perception of the kingdom, not only relating to its alleged involvement in the attacks, but also because it opens the door for discussing the current state of affairs in Saudi Arabia, including human rights abuses.
Andrew Maloney, a lawyer for the 9/11 victims' families, said the legal proceedings are in the stage of discovery - gathering documents from the Saudis and other parties.
If the Saudis refuse to cooperate with the court, Maloney explained, they would be considered in default.
Saudi assets in the U.S. are abundant and would be up for grabs if the plaintiffs win.
Saudi rulers have cozied up to Donald Trump, and Prince bin Salman has particularly received praise from the U.S. president.
"Even if the president didn't want us to do it, he really couldn't stop us… The Saudis are mistaken if they're relying on the president to protect them here; it's not possible," Maloney said.
Maloney said the 9/11 Commission report leaves open a large portion of the Saudi government that could be held liable, including Saudis who may not be considered high-level officials.
If a faction of mid-level Saudi officials had been conspiring with the hijackers, it would make the entire government liable, Maloney said.
The lawyer suggested that the report does not tell the entire story.
"The (Saudi) Ministry of Islamic Affairs in the United States and other parts of the world had government officials who conspired with Al-Qaeda to support them and to support the 9/11 hijackers," Maloney said.
"The 9/11 Commission back in 2003 and 2004 either didn't pursue, didn't want to pursue, covered up for the Saudis or just never got around to finishing the investigation. That's where we picked it up, and we've collected a lot more information and evidence since then."
He added that the FBI may have sealed information on Saudi involvement that the plaintiffs are seeking.
The most damning allegations in the lawsuit are around contacts by Saudi officials with hijackers Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, who arrived to the U.S. and settled in southern California in January 2000.
According to the 9/11 Commission report, the two militants were "ill-prepared" for a mission in the United States: they were not fluent in English and had not spent any "substantial time" in the West. The investigation found that it was "unlikely" that Mihdhar and Hazmi came to the United States without arranging in advance to receive assistance from individuals in the U.S.
The plaintiffs say those individuals were allegedly two Saudi officials in Los Angeles and San Diego: Fahad al-Thumairy and Omar al-Bayoumi.
Thumairy was the head of a Saudi-funded mosque in Los Angeles and he had been appointed to the position by the head of Saudi Islamic Affairs in Washington, according to court documents. He was also an "accredited diplomat" at the Saudi consulate there. The lawsuit accuses him of "orchestrating the U.S.-based support network" for Mihdhar and Hazmi.
The plaintiffs allege that Thumairy connected the pair with Bayoumi, a Saudi citizen who had been employed by the Saudi government since the 1970s and lived in San Diego after moving there in 1994 to study English on a government scholarship.
The lawsuit says Bayoumi, in turn, allegedly helped Mihdhar and Hazmi settle in San Diego, where he co-signed a lease for their apartment and put them in touch with Anwar al-Awlaki, a preacher who later came out in support of Al-Qaeda and was subsequently killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011.
The 9/11 Commission report says, "We do not know" how the hijackers met al-Awlaki.
Bayoumi allegedly also connected the hijacker to an individual from Awlaki's congregation who provided further assistance.
"Based on these alleged facts, plaintiffs claim that Thumairy and Bayoumi were directed by someone within the Saudi embassy in Washington, DC, to help Hazmi and Midhar acclimate and settle in the United States to begin preparations for the 9/11 Attacks," Judge Daniels wrote in March.
The lawsuit says Bayoumi's phone records show that he made calls to Saudi consulates in the U.S. 74 times between January and March 2000, coinciding with the hijackers arrival in the country. Thirty-four of those calls were made to the consulate in Los Angeles where Thumairy worked.
"These allegations, unrebutted by any contrary evidence from Saudi Arabia, are sufficient to create a reasonable basis for this court to exercise jurisdiction over the claims plaintiffs assert against Saudi Arabia to justify jurisdictional discovery to proceed as to Thumairy and Bayoumi," Daniels wrote in his decision to reject Saudi Arabia's motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
Asked if there is evidence linking Saudi officials to the 9/11 attacks beyond the two hijackers who landed in California in 2000, Maloney's answer was a "definitive yes," but he refused to share the details.
"Eventually, it will come out; you will see, but I can't go beyond that," the lawyer said.