One Declined, One Pending: Scotus Asked to Enforce an Arbitration Award against a Sovereign and an Oil Company

By R. Daniel Knaap

The U.S. Supreme Court earlier this week declined to hear a case where Saudi Arabian landowners sought to enforce an arbitration award against the Saudi Arabian Oil Co., best known as Saudi Aramco.

The long-running matter, rooted in a nearly 90-year oil development land lease agreement, isn’t over. There’s a companion case from the same petitioners before the Court–against Chevron Corp., Saudi Aramco’s predecessor in the oil exploration and production deal–scheduled to be considered at a Supreme Court conference on June 16.

The Saudi Aramco case explores the limits of sovereign immunity in the face of a request to enforce an arbitral award against a government-tied entity. Now, at least in the Fifth Circuit’s view, the matter’s complex back story was sufficient to deny enforcement of the award against the state-owned enterprise in the absence of a 28 U.S.C. §1605 exception to foreign sovereign immunity.

In contrast, the Chevron case involves the issue of whether its predecessor’s arbitration agreement applies to the dispute.

The petitioners instituted two different enforcement proceedings regarding an $18 billion International Arbitration Center award against Saudi Aramco (Al-Qarqani v. Arab AMOCO, 2020 WL 6748031 (S.D. Tex., Nov. 17, 2020) and Chevron (Al-Qarqani v. Chevron Corp., 2019 WL 4729467 (N.D. Cal., Sept. 24, 2019).

Both the California and Texas U.S. District Courts refused to confirm the award. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the California district court, holding that the enforcement petition should be denied on the merits and not dismissed for failure to state a claim. Al-Qarqani v. Chevron Corp., 8 F.4th 1018 (9th Cir. 2021) (available at https://bit.ly/3zhYVvM). It further denied the petitions for rehearing and rehearing en banc, Al-Qarqani v. Chevron Corp., 2021 U.S. App. LEXIS 33976 (9th Cir. Cal., Nov. 16, 2021).

The case continues. A petition for certiorari in the nation’s top Court for Waleed Khalid Abu Al-Waleed Al Hood Al-Qarqani, et al. v. Chevron Corp., No. 21-1153, is pending and distributed for the June 16 conference.

In the Saudi Aramco case, the Fifth Circuit vacated the Southern District of Texas’s judgment, remanding with instructions that the case should be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction since Saudi Aramco qualified as a foreign state immune from suit under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (“FSIA”), 28 U.S.C. §1603. Al-Waleed v. Saudi Arabian Oil Co., 19 F.4th 794 (5th Cir. 2021) (available at https://bit.ly/3zgvSZC).

The petition for certiorari in that case, Waleed Khalid Abu Al-Waleed Al Hood Al Qarqani, et al. v. Saudi Arabian Oil Co., No. 21-1335, was denied on May 31; Tuesday’s order declining cert is available here.

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According to the Supreme Court filings and lower court decisions, the case concerns a dispute between Saudi landowners and Saudi Aramco, which is Chevron’s successor in interest and fully owned by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In 1933, an agreement was concluded between Chevron’s predecessor, Standard Oil Co. of California, and Saudi Arabia, which provided for rent payments to private landowners of oil-rich land, who were not a party to the agreement.

A deed of concession was concluded in 1949, which transferred the property from the landowners to Arabian American Oil Co., now Saudi Aramco. The petitioners, heirs of the landowners that were a party to the 1949 deed, claim that the land was leased, not sold, and that the 1933 agreement arbitration provision was imported into the 1949 deed. The petitioners initially sought back rent in Saudi Arabian courts. That proceeding took place in 2011, and a “Saudi Legal Committee” found that the 1949 deed was a sale, not a lease. 19 F.4th 794, 797.

The petitioners commenced arbitration proceedings at the International Arbitration Center in Egypt against Aramco and Chevron entities. Aramco rejected the arbitration and did not participate in the proceedings. The Chevron entities objected but nominated an arbitrator. Initially, the tribunal held that it lacked jurisdiction, but the proceedings were reopened by a panel with different members, resulting in an opinion in favor of the petitioners, awarding them $18 billion. Id. In the aftermath of the arbitration, an Egyptian court convicted two IAC administrators and three arbitrators of fraud, forgery, and other crimes relating to the second proceeding. Id.

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The Saudi Aramco petition presented the following questions: whether a foreign sovereign or instrumentality of a state that (1) is a signatory to the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards–the New York Convention–may assert the FSIA as a defense to enforcement of a foreign arbitral award, (2) accepts and accedes the United Nations Conventions on Jurisdictional Immunities amounts to an express waiver of sovereign immunity under the New York Convention, and (3) fails to timely file a cross appeal from a U.S. district court order that denied the sovereign’s assertion of the FSIA as a defense amounts to waiver and bars a subsequent request for a jurisdictional dismissal on appeal that is based on the merits.

Since certiorari was denied, the Fifth Circuit’s judgment stands. It held that Saudi Aramco is a foreign state under the FSIA since it was “a distinct legal entity incorporated under Saudi law, a majority of whose shares are owned by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and whose principal place of business is in Saudi Arabia” and thus “presumptively immune from suit in the courts of the United States.” 19 F.4th 794, 800. This immunity was not waived by the exceptions set out in FSIA’s 28 U.S.C. §1605(a). It was not waived under §1605(a)(1) because “the dispute underlying the arbitral award at issue … is clearly outside its scope,” since neither Saudi Aramco, its predecessor, nor the petitioners were party to the 1933 agreement. Id.

The immunity was also not waived under §1605(a)(2) by Saudi Aramco conducting business in the United States since the arbitration took place in Egypt and “did not cause a ‘direct effect’ in the United States.” Id., at 801.

The expropriation exception provided in §1605(a)(3) also does not apply because the action is to enforce an arbitral award, “not litigation of a property dispute involving international law.” Id.

Finally, immunity also was not waived under §1605(a)(6)’s arbitration agreement exception since neither Saudi Aramco, its predecessor, nor the petitioners were party to the 1933 agreement, and the 1949 deed did not mention arbitration nor did it refer to the 1933 agreement’s arbitration clause. Therefore, the Fifth Circuit concluded, the action should be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction instead of denying the petition for enforcement. Id. at 801-2.

The cert denial allowing the Fifth Circuit decision to stand in turn appears to provide some answers to the petitioner’s questions presented.

First, a foreign sovereign or instrumentality of a state that is a signatory to the New York Convention may assert the FSIA as a defense to enforcement of a foreign arbitral award. Second, a foreign sovereign or instrumentality of a state that accepts and accedes the United Nations Convention on Jurisdictional Immunities does not amount to an express waiver of sovereign immunity under the New York Convention. The third question, however, was not explicitly addressed since the appeal was found to be timely.

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The author, a law student at Columbia University Law School in New York, is a 2022 CPR Summer intern.

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