Violent Jihad

Saudi Talks with Hamas Point to Improving Relationship

Last week, Saudi King Salman held talks with Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal, and other top Hamas officials. The Saudi monarchy has not officially acknowledged talks with Hamas for four years, though the two have maintained informal contact. The meeting demonstrates that the rapport between the two sides is improving after years of strained relations. Hamas … Continue reading "Saudi Talks with Hamas Point to Improving Relationship"

BY Jennifer Keltz · | July 24, 2015

Last week, Saudi King Salman held talks with Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal, and other top Hamas officials. The Saudi monarchy has not officially acknowledged talks with Hamas for four years, though the two have maintained informal contact. The meeting demonstrates that the rapport between the two sides is improving after years of strained relations.

Hamas formed in 1987 as the Palestinian arm of the Egyptian-based Muslim Brotherhood. Though Saudi Arabia and the Brotherhood had a good relationship throughout much of the mid- and late-twentieth century, the relationship devolved during the First Gulf War. The Brotherhood opposed the Saudi government’s allowance of American presence in the country and support for the US in the war. Though their relationship improved throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, it deteriorated again during the Arab Spring in 2011. The Saudi branch of the Brotherhood voiced its support for the Egyptian uprising that put Mohamed Morsi in power, and the government worried the branch would attempt its own political revolution.

Last year, the country designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. This caused concern amongst Hamas leadership because the designation was applied to the Brotherhood’s affiliates and front organizations, and much of the charity money and financial support that the group receives comes from Saudi Arabia. However, Salman, who became King in January, has been much more open to talks with the Brotherhood than his predecessor, and this likely led to last week’s meeting with Meshaal. The Saudi government recently stated that despite meeting with Meshaal, the official view  of the Saudi kingdom toward Hamas remained unchanged.

Saudi concerns with Hamas extend beyond its involvement in the Global Muslim Brotherhood. Iran, Saudi Arabia’s foremost regional competitor, is traditionally one of Hamas’ major funders. Hamas and Iran had a falling-out over the group’s refusal to support the Iranian-backed Assad regime in Syria when the Syrian uprising began in 2011, but relations started to improve again last year. Though Iran cut funding to Hamas in retaliation for supporting Syrian rebels against Assad in 2013, it reportedly transferred tens of millions of dollars to the group this year to help rebuild its tunnel network that was damaged in its 2014 war with Israel.

Saudi Arabia, a Sunni nation, is currently fighting a sectarian-based proxy war in Yemen against Shia Iran. A major motivating factor behind reopening talks with Sunni Hamas is the possibility of creating sectarian tension between the organization and Iran with the intention of weakening Iran’s regional influence. Earlier this month, the Iranian news agency Fars reported that Saudi Arabia asked Hamas to send 700 fighters to Yemen to assist the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis, who officially seized power from Yemen’s Saudi-backed President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi in February. Meshaal rejected these claims, saying that they were unfounded; however, Hamas does formally support President Hadi. As Iran already cut ties with the Gaza-based Palestinian Islamic Jihad over its reluctance to support Iran and the Houthis in Yemen, an improving relationship between Hamas and Saudi Arabia could lead to another falling-out with Iran.

Saudi Arabia has also been a major contributor to the US-led coalition fighting against the Islamic State, which has established the Sinai Province affiliate in the North Sinai region of Egypt. Sinai Province is reportedly collaborating with Hamas in attacks on the anti-Brotherhood government of Egyptian President Al-Sisi, even while Hamas has been suppressing Islamic State activities in the Gaza Strip itself. Saudi Arabia may be trying to gain the support and loyalty of Hamas to ensure that the group stops aiding attacks on Egypt. If Saudi Arabia is able to do so, its already strong relationship with Egypt would continue to improve. As Saudi Arabia is currently worried about Iran and its sponsorship of Shia activity in Egypt, this would give it more influence in Egypt while additionally damaging Iran’s growing regional influence.

Hamas also stands to gain significantly from better relations with Saudi Arabia. Since Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi rose to power in a 2013 military coup, he has continuously promised to crack down on Islamist militancy. Egyptian troops destroyed many of the smuggling tunnels Hamas built between Gaza and and Egypt in 2013, and the group was officially banned from operating within Egypt’s borders in 2014. Saudi Arabia has been a strong backer and ally of Sisi, supporting his 2013 coup and giving billions of dollars in aid, so Hamas may try to leverage an improved relationship with Saudi Arabia to stop Egyptian suppression.

Importantly, Hamas is trying to maintain positive relationships with both Saudi Arabia and Iran. It will take money from any country that offers it, and it is clearly trying to walk a fine line between openly supporting either side, evidenced by its voiced support for Yemen’s president but refusal to assist in the fighting. Like Saudi Arabia, it is Sunni, but it has a history of receiving support from Iran and so is likely to continue courting both countries.

Unfortunately, Saudi involvement with Hamas, which has been designated a terrorist organization by the US, EU, Israel, Canada, and Japan, is just as bad as Iranian involvement. Hamas’ charter calls for the destruction of Israel, and it has fought almost continuously with Israel since its inception.

Israel and Saudi Arabia have never established formal diplomatic relations, but they revealed in June that they have been holding secret meetings to discuss the Iran nuclear deal, which both countries vehemently oppose. Increased Saudi support for Hamas may be detrimental to this budding Saudi relationship with Israel: Israel already has few allies in the Middle East and poor relationships with Hamas’ usual backers, Iran, Qatar and Turkey. Meanwhile Saudi Arabia’s sphere of influence in the region is retracting, and it is growing estranged from its historical alliance with the US.

Closer ties between Saudi Arabia and Hamas could alienate Israel. However, Israel may decide that the threat of a nuclear Iran outweighs its irritation at Saudi Arabia for supporting for Hamas.



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