RAMALLAH, West Bank — Relations between Saudi Arabia and Hamas have been teetering on the brink of complete collapse in light of recent stances by Saudi officials and media outlets against the Palestinian movement.
The Saudi daily Al-Riyadh called the Palestinian movement "terrorist" in the headline of a website story the day after a Hamas delegation attended the Aug. 4 inauguration ceremony of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The website soon removed the story, however, after it prompted a storm of angry tweets, especially in response to Israeli army spokesman Avichay Adraee, who took to Twitter to support the terrorist label for Hamas.
Hamas condemned the article in a statement Aug. 6.
This was not Saudi Arabia’s first attack against Hamas. In a July 11 TV interview, Saudi Ambassador to Algeria Sami Saleh also described Hamas as a terrorist group.
“Hamas seeks to spread problems in the region. It is classified as a terrorist group,” Saleh said. These statements angered Algerians, who took to social media. Some demanded an apology and others went so far as to demand that Algerian authorities expel the Saudi ambassador. Algeria and its political parties are staunch supporters of the Palestinians and Hamas.
The Saudi-backed Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper reported July 17 that Hamas is searching for a foothold in Algeria to shelter its officials who left Qatar in early June, when Saudis and others in the Gulf imposed an embargo on Qatar for allegedly supporting terrorism. Hamas has officially asked to establish a representative office in Algeria but has not received a response.
During the May 21 Arab-Islamic summit in Riyadh, US President Donald Trump called Hamas a terrorist group and said it practices the same brutality as the Islamic State (IS). Saudi Arabia apparently saw this as a green light to start its attack on Hamas.
Abdel Hamid Hakim, who heads the Jeddah, Saudia Arabia-based Institute for Middle East Studies, said during a June 5 interview with Israeli Channel 2 that Saudi Arabia will fight against Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement.
On June 6, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir called on Qatar to stop supporting Hamas, saying “Enough is enough. … Qatar has to stop supporting groups like Hamas.”
A Hamas leader told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “Trump's speech in Saudi Arabia encouraged some Saudi media and diplomatic parties to attack Hamas — the spearhead of the Palestinian resistance.”
Hamas leader Ahmad al-Hajj slammed the Saudi position toward Hamas. He told Al-Monitor, “Whoever attacks the resistance and accuses Hamas of terrorism has no shame. This is a sign of ignorance.” He added, “Since when is a movement that defends its land labeled as a terrorist group? If Saudi Arabia was occupied, and the Saudis resisted, would they be called terrorists?"
He continued, “Labeling Hamas as a terrorist group is a sign of erratic thinking. Whoever makes such claims is surely associated with [Israel]. We hope the statements expressed in Saudi newspaper Al-Riyadh do not represent the Saudi regime or the Saudi people.”
Mustafa al-Sawaf, a writer and political analyst close to Hamas, told Al-Monitor, “The fact that a Saudi newspaper describes Hamas as a terrorist group is immoral and does not reflect the position of the Saudi regime. No Arab regime would dare describe the Palestinian movement as a terrorist group, although some of these regimes, including Saudi Arabia, are secretly fighting against Hamas.”
Sawaf was referring to the Egyptian regime’s anti-Hamas stance and the strict measures imposed on the Gaza Strip before signs of rapprochement emerged recently, Also, in light of the Gulf crisis and attempts to isolate Hamas, Qatar had called for the expulsion of Hamas leaders.
“The Arab leaders are seeking to consolidate their rule by remaining silent on Trump's statements. They believe he will protect their regimes and power,” Sawaf said, referring to Trump’s speech at the Riyadh summit.
He noted that Hamas' relationship with Iran has nothing to do with Saudi Arabia’s attack against the Palestinian resistance movement. “A few days ago [Aug. 13], Iraqi Interior Minister Qasim al-Araji revealed that Saudi Arabia asked Baghdad to mediate between Riyadh and Tehran. Does this mean that Saudi Arabia is a terrorist state, or is it entitled to establish relations with Iran? Why isn’t Hamas entitled to do so?”
Saudi Arabia's hostility toward Hamas is due to the movement’s relations with Qatar, its old and renewed alliance with Iran, its affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood and most importantly, its unyielding stance on its right to resistance. Hamas rejected a Saudi-led settlement with Israel through an Arab peace initiative presented at the Arab summit in Beirut in 2002.
Islamic Jihad spokesman Daoud Shihab told Al-Monitor, “Some Saudi parties made statements against Hamas to ingratiate themselves with Trump, which reflects the monarchy’s fear of collapse if it fails to respond to Trump’s political approaches, which are leaning toward Israel in the region.”
Shihab said Saudi Arabia’s stance on the Palestinian resistance factions has nothing to do with their relations with Iran. “Saudi Arabia has never supported the resistance factions and describing them as terrorist has nothing to do with their association to Iran," he said. Saudi Arabia is being hostile toward the resistance because the groups refuse to take part in any settlement with Israel, he added.
Kaid al-Ghoul, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine’s political bureau, told Al-Monitor, “Saudi Arabia’s stance on the resistance factions is incorrect and dangerous. By labeling Hamas as terrorist, Saudi Arabia is seeking to take sides with Trump and be in line with the American administration’s point of view on this issue.”
He said, “Saudi Arabia’s statements reflect its readiness to switch sides and start normalization with Israel. This is actually happening, given the recent declared and undeclared meetings between Israelis and Saudis, which aim at preparing the domestic Saudi and regional arena for declared relations between the two sides in the future. Saudi Arabia is also working to save face for Israel and to forge an alliance with it, against an imagined and a more dangerous enemy in the mind of Saudis: Iran.”
Since the Riyadh summit, Saudi Arabia has been increasingly antagonizing Hamas. Riyadh has been involved in the Palestinian process in the region according to Trump’s plan, which seeks to normalize Arab relations with Israel. This would prompt Saudi Arabia to pressure the so-called moderate Arab countries to take similar stances on Hamas. The tightening noose around the Palestinian resistance movement’s neck is likely to push it to pick up its old alliances with Iran, which have seen a recent improvement, not to mention its good relations with Lebanon’s Hezbollah, while waiting for a breakthrough in Syria.