Hamas-Saudi thaw rumoured as Riyadh shakes up regional relations

Hamas-Saudi thaw rumoured as Riyadh shakes up regional relations
Analysis: Geopolitics is confusing at the best of times. Now with the Middle East in greater turmoil than usual, every major power is re-evaluating its friendships.
5 min read
10 March, 2015
An invitation to Riyadh would likely come as a surprise to Hamas' Khaled Mashaal [AFP]

It is a measure of how fluid the region is that a wholesale re-alignment of powers is very much on the cards. Much of this appears initiated by the new Saudi administration installed under King Salman.

It is therefore no great surprise the latest reports indicate that Saudi Arabia and Hamas - long distrustful of each other - might be on speaking, even friendly, terms as Riyadh rethinks its strategic relationships.

From their very different situations, there is logic in this.

Both Saudi Arabia and Hamas, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood, are in need of as many friends as they can get in a region in near daily flux and where old certainties no longer hold.

Wars, occupations and extremist groups aside, those old certainties have been hugely disturbed by the apparent warming of US-Iranian relations. The White House is pursuing a potential nuclear deal, despite protests from Washington's traditional allies in the region, notably - and most vocally - Israel, but Gulf countries have also been quietly concerned.

Saudi Arabia remains deeply and historically fearful of Iranian intentions, fears that have been exacerbated ever since the US invasion of Iraq opened Baghdad's door to Tehran.

Putting the feelers out

Under the new leadership, Riyadh has reached out to Brotherhood-friendly Turkey, Brotherhood-phobic Egypt and Brotherhood-neutral Pakistan, testing the waters for the formation of a "Sunni circle" to surround the so-called "Shia crescent" of Iran, Iraq and Syria.

That Shia crescent has been dramatically disturbed, of course, by the rise of the Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as Isis), which has carved its own version of an Islamic caliphate out of a third of Iraq and about a quarter of Syria.

     No one wants to be friends with IS, but that apparently hasn't stopped the group from selling oil.

No one wants to be friends with IS, but that apparently hasn't stopped the group from selling oil or securing donations.

And in Yemen, Saudi Arabia's backyard, almost all these forces come into play.

A (largely) Shia movement has taken effective control of the north of the country, apparently aided by the country's former president as well as Iran, pitting it against the GCC-supported southern-based president and a South divided between his forces, secessionists and al-Qaeda militants on the run from US drone strikes.

Amid this great game, that there are reports that Jordanian-Iranian relations are warming - just to disturb any neat picture of a purely Shia-Sunni schism - should also come as no surprise.

There are, in other words, feelers being put out everywhere and by everyone. And it is not surprising that two of the biggest players, Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood, are also the most active in tentatively gauging reactions.

Banned brothers

The Muslim Brotherhood - which most Gulf countries fear almost as much as Iran, but which has suffered the most dramatically in the counter-revolutionary putsch that greeted the Arab Spring - has been all but side-lined for now.

Forced out of power in Egypt, pushed into irrelevancy in Yemen, voted out of power in Tunisia, under fire in Syria and designated a terrorist organisation by most GCC states, a movement that seemed unstoppable only three years ago has seen its momentum not just curtailed but reversed.

But it remains a powerful and popular force. And it is not without allies.

Turkey's relations with the Brothers remain strong, and Ankara has opposed Egypt's move under Abdel Fatah al-Sisi to criminalise and hound the movement. When Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan and Sisi both found themselves in Riyadh last week there were murmurs that an understanding might be thrashed out under Saudi auspices.

Those visits were followed by growing talk in Hamas circles that an invite might be extended to Khaled Meshaal, the movement's political leader, to visit Saudi Arabia.

Hamas sources have told al-Araby al-Jadeed that Saudi officials relayed the message to Hamas that the kingdom does not consider the movement an integral part of the Muslim Brotherhood - and therefore not a terrorist group - contrary to Sisi's opinions of the Gaza-based movement.

     Gazans, and Hamas, need a lifeline.

That Hamas should be excited at the prospect makes sense.

The movement has been increasingly isolated in an impoverished and devastated Gaza Strip where even the smuggling economy is grinding to a halt due to Egyptian restrictions.

An opening with Riyadh could lead to an opening of the border with Egypt if Saudi pressure comes to bear upon Cairo, and that would be an invaluable prize for Hamas.

Gaza's 1.8 million people are in dire straits and billion-dollar promises of reconstruction have so far proven empty. Gazans, and Hamas, need a lifeline.

Playing the game

The Saudi interest is much broader. Yemen remains an immediate concern and an opening with Yemen's Brotherhood could give Riyadh another ally in a country that lurches from crisis to crisis.

Turkey, meanwhile, is a crucial player in countering Iran's growing international influence, and any attempt at creating a counterweight to Iran will largely depend on Ankara.

But Turkey has bet big on the Muslim Brotherhood and Riyadh is likely to have to accept that alliance if it is deepen relations with Ankara.

Hamas will tread carefully. They are a small player in this bigger picture and can easily be burnt. But they are also a prize, a resistance movement with some credibility, one not tainted by sectarianism, and one fighting for the Palestinian cause that still resonates, for all the turmoil, among Arab and wider publics.

Why else would Iran also want to claim ownership?

Riyadh-Cairo relations also come into play. Sisi has played hardball and will have to walk back some considerable distance if borders are to be opened with Gaza and Hamas is to escape its "terrorist organisation" designation.

Still, anything is possible right now as the competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran sharpens.

And should Riyadh and Tehran ever decide to resolve their differences directly, both will want to be in as strong a bargaining position as possible beforehand.