Gulf Pulse

Has Hamas completely forgotten Saudi Arabia?

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Article Summary
The appointment of Yahya Sinwar as Hamas’ head in the Gaza Strip undermines the rapprochement between the movement and Saudi Arabia, while drawing Iran closer to the Palestinian resistance.

Relations between Hamas and Saudi Arabia are frosty, although several figures in the kingdom’s religious current had expected the ice to melt between both countries. As soon as King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud acceded to the throne in January 2015, the kingdom was overcome by a wave of popular mobilization, which bet on Saudi Arabia’s openness to political Islam groups like Hamas. Consequently, Khaled Meshaal, the head of Hamas’ political bureau, visited Saudi Arabia in July 2015 and met with Salman. But Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir undermined the visit and said it had a religious context, specifically to perform umrah (a pilgrimage to Mecca), and they did not tackle any political dimensions.

In a phone call with Al-Monitor from Riyadh, Minister of State for Arabian Gulf Affairs at the Foreign Ministry Thamer al-Sabhan stressed that his county deals with states, not movements and organizations, thus explaining the lack of communication between Riyadh and Hamas. The kingdom supports the Palestinian Authority (PA) directly and has a more comprehensive stance that complies with international charters, which ban cooperation with any nonstate actors, according to Sabhan.

Sabhan added that Iran — through its support for Hamas, which represents the Palestinian resistance — did not triumph over Saudi Arabia in winning over Islamic public opinion. Sabhan accused Tehran of being completely nonchalant to the Palestinian cause and seeking to achieve personal interests by dividing Fatah and Hamas and foiling Arab efforts that aim to unite all Palestinians. He asserted that even though Saudi Arabia has halted support for Hamas, it remains committed to supporting the Palestinian budget through the PA.

On Feb. 13, Hamas elected Yahya Sanwar, a member of the movement’s military wing Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, as leader for the movement in the Gaza Strip. Sanwar has strong ties with Iran that go beyond Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflicts in the region. By voting for him, it seems Hamas opted for the armed option. The movement is thus tending toward Tehran, which is unparalleled in its training and funding potential in the Arab world.

With Sanwar spearheading Hamas, any predictions about contact between the movement and Saudi Arabia no longer stand. Hamas’ good days with the Saudi government, when the movement’s late founder and leader Ahmed Yassin who opposed the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran was still alive, are long gone. At the time, Yassin and Saudi Arabia saw eye to eye in their ideologies, and the kingdom gave him a private car during his return from pilgrimage in 1998 and treated him respectfully and kindly throughout his life.

Hamas leader Ali Baraka told Al-Monitor in a phone conversation from his office in Beirut that Hamas’ political bureau decides its foreign relations. The bureau works on fostering ties with Arab and Muslim states, including Saudi Arabia.

Baraka said, “Hamas is more interested in support for the resistance and its cause. For that reason, it is keener on Iran.”

When Hamas showed opposition for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime at the onset of the Syrian revolution and moved the meetings of its political bureau from Damascus to Doha, many political analysts thought it was opening a new page with Saudi Arabia. They thought a divide was underway between Hamas and Iran, Assad’s biggest fan. But Tehran is still supporting the movement.

A source close to the Hamas leadership told Al-Monitor, “When senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh visited Saudi Arabia to perform pilgrimage in September 2016, he was not warmly welcomed. He did not get the chance to be present when King Salman welcomed the pilgrims, whether presidents or senior Islamic country representatives, to the presidential palace. This devastated Hamas.”

The same source said on condition of anonymity that Saudi officials did not show any interest in communicating with Haniyeh when he was in the kingdom, adding in exclusive information to Al-Monitor that Saudi authorities arrested a member of Hamas’ political bureau in 2016 and accused him of collecting money for al-Qassam Brigades. The source said that this member was only released upon mediation from some countries close to Hamas. Iran was not among those countries due to its tense relations with Saudi Arabia.

The source added, “The Saudi people have always supported al-Qassam Brigades, and if their government allows them to back Hamas, Iranian funding would not compare. But several indications show that Saudi Arabia does not want Hamas. In national celebrations, for instance, Saudi embassies no longer invite Hamas representatives. We feel ignored. For that reason, some Hamas leaders objected to Meshaal and Haniyeh’s attendance at the Saudi Embassy’s National Day celebrations in Qatar” in September 2016.

Hamas was unhappy about Saudi Arabia’s behavior toward it and indirectly responded through statements from senior officials like deputy head of Hamas’ political bureau Mousa Abu Marzouk, who openly lauded Iran’s role in Palestine. On June 16, 2016, Marzouk took no notice of Arabs when he said, “Iran’s support for the Palestinian resistance, from supply and training to funding, is unparalleled and most countries cannot offer it.”

The Hamas source asserted that Saudi Arabia’s support for Palestine is restricted to the PA in Ramallah rather than Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The source said, “We respect the Mecca Agreement and we have not abandoned it, although Saudi Arabia believes we have. Haniyeh’s government is legitimate and has the majority in the Palestinian Legislative Council, but we cannot ignore the elephant in the room. Iran is the one who rebuilt al-Qassam Brigades’ military structure in the wake of the Israeli war on Gaza in 2014 within a year.”

Abdul Aziz bin Saqr, the director of the Gulf Research Center, which is close to the Saudi regime, told Al-Monitor, “The change of leadership in the United States and the possible marginalization of Palestinians’ rights pushed Hamas to rapprochement with extremist groups facing US policy.”

The source believes that choosing Sanwar, who has a military background, as Hamas’ leader further entrenches al-Qassam Brigades’ control, and this has pushed the movement toward rapprochement with Iran at the expense of its relations with Saudi Arabia.

Found in: gaza strip, ismail haniyeh, khaled meshaal, yahya sinwar, saudi-iranian rivalry, hamas funding, hamas-iran relations, hamas-fatah relations

Fahd al-Otaibi is a Saudi journalist who writes about political and economic affairs in the Gulf and the Arab world.

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