After years of alignment with Shiite Iran and its Arab allies, the Palestinian Hamas group is bidding for Sunni patronage from Saudi Arabia in a dramatic shift to its geostrategic orientation.
A high-level Hamas delegation headed by the group’s politburo chief, Khaled Mashaal, visited Riyadh last Friday to meet with King Salman, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, and a host of Saudi officials. The makeup of Hamas’s team was noteworthy, as it included Mashaal’s deputy, Moussa Abu Marzouk, and Saleh al-Arouri, the movement’s Turkey-based official suspected of guiding recently exposed terror cells in the West Bank, as well as the abduction-killing of three Israeli teenagers last summer. Arab media rushed to note that it was the first such meeting in over three years.
The Hamas daily al-Resalah cleared some of the fog surrounding the visit on Sunday, reporting that Saudi King Salman had requested that Hamas and Fatah empower him to replace Egypt as mediator in the reconciliation efforts between the two groups. Mashaal, the report said, came to Riyadh carrying a written “letter of empowerment” for Salman, while Fatah leader and PA President Mahmoud Abbas refused to do so.
The sudden, overt rapprochement between revolutionary Hamas and conservative Saudi Arabia — both followers of Sunni Islam — is unsurprising given the gradual decline in Hamas’s relations with Iran in recent years. It is not just money that Hamas is after (although given its financial pitfalls, some cash certainly couldn’t hurt), but more importantly, a new patron in a region increasingly defined by its sectarian divides.
ِAs Gaza-based Hamas leader Khalil Haya appealed to Muslim and Arab states on Monday night for money and arms “with no political price,” Abu Marzouk struggled to explain that his movement’s trip to Saudi Arabia was not intended as a snub to Iran.
“Hamas’s compass will remain directed to Jerusalem, with the liberation of Palestine the basis of its strategy,” he wrote on Facebook. “We will maintain relations with everyone.”
The United States, Abu Marzouk continued, is currently in the process of reevaluating its old alliances in the region, angering some while creating new opportunities for others. “Hamas remains the exception to this policy. It [the US] has maintained its animosity to the movement,” he wrote.
Hamas’s public appeal for American favor does not please Iran, Hamas’s former benefactor. The Islamic Republic would not accept Abu Marzouk’s attempt to pacify everyone, indicating that Hamas’s shift toward Saudi Arabia means a cut with Iran. “Hamas takes a step toward Riyadh and two steps away from Tehran,” read the headline of pro-Hezbollah — and, by extension, pro-Iran — Lebanese daily al-Akhbar on Sunday.
After the visit, which ended on Saturday, Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency reported that the Saudi king had asked Mashaal to send hundreds of trained Hamas gunmen to Yemen to fight alongside the Saudi army against the Houthi separatists, who are backed by Iran. Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri rushed to deny the Iranian report as “pure lies.”
Other Iranian news outlets, both liberal and conservative, launched a scathing attack on Hamas. An article in reformist daily Ghanoon on Sunday blasted Khaled Mashaal’s ingratitude toward Iran with the headline “Bank account in Tehran, stronghold in Riyadh.”
The article described the deteriorating relations between Gaza and Tehran, beginning with Hamas’s abandonment of Iran’s Syrian ally Bashar Assad in January 2012. The tensions escalated with Hamas’s reported support for Saudi attacks on Houthi strongholds in Yemen recently.
In the wake of last summer’s war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, Iranian media expressed hope that Hamas would “realize its mistake” in supporting the Sunni axis against Iran, noted Raz Zimmt, an expert in Iranian politics at Tel Aviv University and the Forum for Regional Thinking.
“Hamas’s alliance with Saudi Arabia during the war in Yemen was another slap in the face for Iran, which realized that Hamas’s political leadership prefers the Saudi axis to the Iranian one,” Zimmt told The Times of Israel Tuesday.
Despite the crisis, Zimmt believes that Iran and Hamas cannot completely sever ties. Hamas’s armed wing continues to demand military aid that Saudi Arabia will never provide, while Iran will always require a significant Palestinian partner.
“I believe there’s deep disagreement within Hamas whether to prefer Iran or Saudi Arabia, with the political leadership leaning toward Saudi Arabia and the military leadership toward Iran,” he said.
“For Iran, there aren’t too many alternatives. If they want to influence the domestic [Palestinian] political arena, they can only do it through Hamas. Islamic Jihad just isn’t a significant player.”