In Selected Opinion

By Frida Ghitis- World Politics Review

Last Friday, the exiled leader of Hamas, Khaled Mashaal, traveled to Saudi Arabia from his home in Qatar, ending several years of deep chill in the relations between the Saudi kingdom and the radical Palestinian group that rules Gaza.

Hamas officials described the visit, Mashaal’s first in three years, as a major success, a “breakthrough” in relations and a “clear shift.” And it was a measure of how important the encounter was to the Saudis that Mashaal met with the top three men in the kingdom: King Salman, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and the king’s son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is deputy crown prince, defense minister and reportedly the leading architect of Saudi policy.

That policy, in the aftermath of the Iran agreement, is driven by a determined effort to counter Tehran’s influence. That means, among other maneuvers, courting Hamas and other actors that the kingdom has viewed in the past with suspicion as a way to weaken Iran and forge an alliance against Tehran, the Saudis’ paramount rival. In particular, Riyadh is now casting aside the antipathy that long characterized the kingdom’s attitude toward groups linked with the Muslim Brotherhood—whose anti-monarchical ideology is objectively opposed to the kingdom’s survival in its current form—for the sake of what the Saudis now view as a more urgent challenge.

For Hamas, the new Saudi strategy creates an extraordinary opportunity. If handled deftly, the new circumstances put the Gaza rulers in a position to weigh rival offers of support after years of relative isolation. Hamas could even become the object of a bidding war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The group’s improved fortunes could not come a moment too soon. Hamas is struggling with huge budget shortfalls, and the population of Gaza is deeply unhappy in the aftermath of last summer’s war with Israel.

The potential strengthening of Hamas is a setback for U.S. policy regarding Israeli-Palestinian relations because it weakens the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Fatah, the Palestinian entities that support a two-state solution, while benefiting Hamas, which still rejects Israel’s right to exist. Any hope that the Saudis might influence Hamas to change its stripes is tempered by the fact that previous attempts by the Saudis to persuade Hamas to reconcile with Fatah for the sake of Palestinian unity have all failed. If Hamas is reluctant to compromise with Fatah, the chances that it will shed its hostility to Israel—the essence of its identity, clearly spelled out in its charter—is mere fantasy.


For more moderate Palestinians, the Hamas-Saudi thaw is a source of deep concern. The meetings reportedly angered Fatah, which rejected any suggestion that the Saudis would lead yet another reconciliation effort, according to Palestinian media.

Also looking with extreme discomfort at the pleasantries in Riyadh was Cairo. Egypt has grown increasingly worried about Saudi Arabia’s new attitude toward the Muslim Brotherhood. The fears were underscored by news that the Riyadh meeting included a request from Mashaal that the Saudis intercede with the Egyptians on behalf of Mohammed Morsi, the deposed former president of Egypt and Muslim Brotherhood leader who has been sentenced to death.

The government of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi had enjoyed a strong alliance with the Saudis, who shared his view of the Muslim Brotherhood as a dangerous threat that should be eradicated. But now that Riyadh is more concerned about Iran, it is easing its stance toward radical Sunni groups, precisely at a time when Egypt is experiencing an onslaught of extremist violence. The rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Hamas, as well as with other Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups such as Yemen’s Islah, is a source of deep concern in Cairo.

As the nuclear deal with Iran started looking inevitable, Saudi Arabia revised its stance toward the Muslim Brotherhood. Already in March, King Salman jolted the region, and alarmed Egypt, when he declared,“We do not have a problem with the Muslim Brotherhood.” Similarly, Riyadh has been rebuilding its tense relations with Turkey, trying to enlist Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in an anti-Iran Sunni camp. Erdogan is also a bitter foe of the current Egyptian government and has friendly ties with both Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The latest developments are also angering Iran, where the media railed against the Mashaal trip and legislators warned Hamas about the “mistake” it had committed.

Mashaal may hope he can maximize the benefit of the Saudi’s newfound warmth without completely jeopardizing Iran’s largesse. It’s a risky venture that may not be possible. In the end, Hamas could end up angering Iran and receiving only limited backing from Riyadh, which, after all, remains uneasy with the group.

By supporting Hamas, the Saudis hope to deprive Iran of its perceived sponsorship of the militant Palestinian cause while placing themselves at the forefront of an issue popular in the Arab world. But that interest will not erase the mistrust the Saudi kingdom feels toward a group that has a history of collaborating with Iran and embraces the Muslim Brotherhood’s anti-monarchical revolutionary views. And the Saudis no doubt are keenly aware of the impact of any new links with Hamas on the kingdom’s ties with Egypt and the Palestinian Authority.

Both Hamas and the Saudis are taking risks by engaging in this new diplomacy. It’s a sign of the transformative impact of the nuclear deal, which, though it’s impossible to know what its ultimate outcome will be, is already causing enormous changes in the region.

Frida Ghitis is an independent commentator on world affairs and a World Politics Review contributing editor.
Photo: Khaled Mashaal, leader of the Palestinian organization Hamas, gives a speech, Doha, Qatar, Aug. 28, 2014 (AP photo by Osama Faisal).

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