Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas left Saudi Arabia Oct. 17, after a two-day visit, during which he met with King Salman bin Abdelaziz Al Saud and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to bolster joint cooperation and to coordinate political stances. Abbas informed his hosts of the developments of the Palestinian cause, and he reiterated support for the kingdom in the recent attacks on it.
Secretary-General of the PLO Executive Committee Saeb Erekat, Minister of Civil Affairs Hussein al-Sheikh, Chief of the General Intelligence Service Majid Faraj and presidential diplomatic affairs’ adviser Majdi al-Khaldi accompanied Abbas on his visit. The absence of Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh and Foreign Minister Riyad Malki was notable.
Ahead of Abbas’ visit to Riyadh, Khaldi told Sama news agency Oct. 14 that the agenda of the meetings includes items such as holding the international peace conference, finding alternatives for the Palestinian political deadlock and filling Saudi Arabia in on the Palestinian elections.
A Palestinian official close to Abbas told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “The Saudi-Palestinian talks tackled on the one hand the political aspect including coordination of joint stances in line with developments in the region and Palestinian preparations for the elections, and on the other hand the financial aspect related to increasing Saudi support for the PA that is undergoing a financial crisis. The visit resulted in agreement on forming a joint economic committee and a Saudi-Palestinian business council.”
Tensions have risen in the region, in the wake of Iranian attacks on Saudi oil facilities Sept. 14, which Abbas condemned, and the start Oct. 9 of the Turkish military operation against the Kurds in Syria. The Palestinian Authority (PA) supported the Arab League’s position condemning the Turkish offensive. against Turkey.
Wissam Afifa, former editor-in-chief of Al-Resalah newspaper in the Gaza Strip, told Al-Monitor, “Abbas’ visit to Riyadh comes after a long boycott. The last visit took place in February. The [cold relations] are due to the difference in stances over the 'deal of the century,' pressure from Prince Mohammed on Abbas [to accept the deal of the century] and the kingdom’s lack of enthusiasm to provide a financial safety net for the PA to face its [financial] crisis. I do not expect an imminent increase in financial support from the kingdom to the PA.”
Afifa added, “Meanwhile, the Palestinian General Intelligence Services transferred security information to Saudi Arabia about Hamas’ activities and contributed to a Saudi arrest campaign against Hamas cadres.”
The gradual thaw in relations between the PA and Saudi Arabia is remarkable, amid the rising tensions between the kingdom and Hamas. Dozens of Hamas members have been arrested in the kingdom since April, and the PA did not intervene to release them. The families of the Hamas detainees blamed the Palestinian Embassy in Riyadh for their plight in the kingdom.
Palestinian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Bassam al-Agha said Oct. 14 that Abbas’ visit to Riyadh is a message against whoever tries to tarnish the image of Saudi-Palestinian relations.
Abdullah Abdullah, a member of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council and head of the political committee of the Palestinian Legislative Council, told Al-Monitor, “The Saudi-Palestinian summit highlights the positive bilateral relations, which we hope will echo in all other Arab countries. The main source of Arab support for the PA’s budget comes from Saudi Arabia and Algeria, but I do not have information about the kingdom’s pledges of increasing support. Talks between Abbas and Saudi [officials] did not include discussions about the deal of the century because of reduced US talk about it. We firmly support Saudi Arabia against the Iranian attacks, and we pledge to defend Arab lands from any foreign aggression.”
Since February, relations between the Palestinians and Saudis have been shaky due to their disagreement over the deal of the century. The Israeli Jerusalem Post reported Aug. 4 that the PA sought to send a large delegation to Riyadh to hold urgent talks to avoid more deterioration in relations. But Saudi Arabia did not oblige.
The Jerusalem Post cited prominent Palestinian officials saying that during a meeting between Abbas and Mohammed in November 2017, the latter threatened to remove Abbas from power if he does not accept the deal of the century.
On April 30, Lebanese Al-Akhbar newspaper wrote that Mohammed had offered to Abbas during the same meeting in November 2017 $10 billion to accept the deal of the century, but Abbas turned down the offer.
On Aug. 2, Al-Arabiya TV channel interviewed Fadi Salamin, a Palestinian activist based in Washington and archenemy of Abbas, and he spoke in length about the PA’s corruption. Fatah condemned the interview and asked the channel to apologize.
Bassem Naim, former Hamas minister of health and member of Hamas’ international relations office, told Al-Monitor, “Saudi Arabia is an influential country in the region and it cannot be bypassed because of its financial, economic and religious weight. But we are afraid that in the framework of its regional disputes — especially with Iran — it is drawing closer to Israel at the expense of the Palestinians. Saudi Arabia cannot be part of the Palestinian rift by arresting dozens of Hamas cadres who did not threaten its security. The security campaign against Hamas does not suit Saudi Arabia’s standing, because we wish the kingdom stability. Our relations with Iran will not be to its detriment.”
Abbas’ visit to Riyadh might have slowed down the deterioration of ties, but it will not succeed in restoring them completely, at least in the short run. The PA might not integrate completely in the Saudi axis, which is a demand the kingdom will not give up. The current summit might have been a necessary turn for both sides to reposition themselves within the current alliances in the region that have been witnessing quick developments on the political and security scenes.
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