The visit by Hamas Politburo Chief Khaled Meshaal to Saudi Arabia and his meeting with King Salman Bin Abdel-Aziz raised the issue of how the kingdom has opened up to the group under King Salman’s reign. The visit is part of a series of meetings with other Muslim Brotherhood leaders, including Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood leaders and key figures in the Yemeni Reform Party (Al-Islah), Abdel-Meguid Al-Zindani and Salman Al-Ouda.
Senior sources close to Hamas, however, stated there were problems between the kingdom and Hamas that delayed the visit by two months, but that the Muslim Brotherhood general guide in Jordan, Hamam Said, visited Saudi Arabia two weeks ahead of Meshaal’s trip.
Said was invited by Saudi Minister of Religious Endowments Saleh Bin Abdel-Aziz Al-Sheikh and talks resolved most outstanding issues between the two sides. Saudi Arabia Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir at a joint press conference with his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shukri on Thursday, said "there was no political visit by Hamas to the kingdom", trivialising the significance of Hamas visit, saying it was only a religious pilgrimage and Riyadh's position on the Palestinian Islamist movement remains unchanged.
In Cairo, the main theme when analysing Meshaal’s visit to Saudi Arabia revolved around a rapprochement between the kingdom and the Muslim Brotherhood, which is contrary to the position of the previous king on the 30 June 2013 events in Egypt and his wholehearted support for them.
Supporting this perception is the existence of contrasting strategic points between Cairo and Riyadh on issues such as Saudi Arabia’s position on Yemen under the new king, which many view as incompatible with the traditional approach of Egypt. While Egyptian and Saudi diplomatic sources continuously deny leaks highlighting disputes between the two sides, tensions have been unmistakable.
A press statement released by Hamas stated that Meshaal and his delegation met Friday with King Salman, Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Nayef and second-in-line Prince Mohamed Bin Salman. A day earlier, they met with Intelligence Chief General Khaled Bin Ali Bin Abdullah Al-Hemedan. Hamas added that during the two-day visit Meshaal and his delegation also performed a smaller pilgrimage (omra) and attended Eid prayers in Mecca. According to the statement, the delegation also included politburo members Moussa Abu Marzouq, Saleh Al-Arouri and Mohamed Nizal.
Ismail Haniyeh, deputy chief of Hamas’ politburo, said that the visit was fruitful and a success. Haniyeh said at a news conference in Gaza that he hoped the trip would be a promising start for “restoring historic ties and brotherly bonds with our brothers in Saudi Arabia”. “The relationship between us and Saudi Arabia and our Arab brothers is organic,” he said. “Hamas is an Arab Islamic Palestinian liberation movement and we need our entire nation.”
Earlier, Saudi Arabia had released a leading figure in Hamas after his arrest upon US request under a claim of funding terrorism. After his release, this figure met with Meshaal in Jeddah during his trip, and he is likely to leave for Qatar soon. According to Osama Hamdan, who is in charge of Hamas’s foreign relations, the visit is a true breakthrough in relations between the two sides after three years of silence.
Meanwhile, others believe a network of new alliances in the region is being formed based on current strategic and geopolitical transformations, especially what will happen after Iran’s nuclear issue is settled with the West.
“We should not look at the issue from the narrow perspective of the relationship between Hamas, an offshoot of the main Muslim Brotherhood organisation, and Saudi Arabia during that visit,” stated Sobhi Esseila, an expert at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. “It is natural for Hamas to ask Saudi Arabia to put in a good word with Cairo about the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. However, the priority for Saudi Arabia is forming alliances to confront Iran’s regional political impact in the wake of the nuclear deal. Thus, Riyadh is keen on winning everyone to its side; it does not want to lose Egypt or Hamas especially since the group is funded by Iran.”
Esseila said Egypt is not worried about this strategy: “We must understand that the Gulf is the main loser in the nuclear deal and that the West has entirely abandoned the Gulf.”
In Saudi Arabia, there is a belief that there can be flexibility with the Muslim Brotherhood because the scheme that worried the kingdom has failed. “The Brotherhood took a huge loss in Saudi Arabia because it declared its existence there 25 January, contrary to the agreement between Saudi Arabia founder King Abdel-Aziz Bin Saud and Muslim Brotherhood founder Sheikh Hassan Al-Banna,” Nageh Ibrahim, a key Muslim Brotherhood figure, told Al-Ahram Weekly. “This was not a prudent move by the group and it paid a high price.”
Saleh Al-Ghamdi, a Saudi expert, told the Weekly that, “Saudi’s relationship with Egypt is a red line, and Egypt’s stability is paramount for Saudi Arabia. Riyadh wants to strike a balance between Saudi strategic interests. This requires it to strengthen its hand in its next confrontation with Iran, including winning Hamas to its side, and meanwhile maintain key and strategic relations with Egypt.”
Hamas returned to Iran’s fold after a boycott because of Iran’s policies in Syria and its war there, which had required Hamas to support it and stand by Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. Hamas refused and moved the headquarters of its politburo from Damascus to Qatar, which also became the destination of choice for Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood figures after the latter fell from power mid-2013. According to Palestinian sources in Gaza, Lebanon’s Hizbullah sought to repair relations between Hamas and Tehran because of common fundamentals on resistance and fighting Israel. The first meeting between the two sides took place in Beirut in late July 2013, less than one month after the Muslim Brotherhood was deposed in Egypt. What is unusual is that the Cairo-based Abu Marzouq appears to be planning to relocate to Qatar after heart surgery there in April, and that Egypt officially refused to renew his residence.
Iranian media strongly criticised Meshaal’s visit to Saudi Arabia and interpreted it as using Hamas in the war in Yemen that is overseen by Defence Minister Prince Mohamed Bin Salman. According to Fares news agency, Prince Bin Salman asked Hamas to send 700 fighters to train Yemenis for mountain combat, and that Meshaal asked for $20 million to pay for salaries and other financial shortages in the Gaza Strip resulting from the siege. However, a Palestinian source close to Hamas told the Weekly that the Iranian news agency analysed the visit from its own perspective, as did everyone else from their viewpoint.
“The visit is not such a big deal,” he asserted. He explained that perhaps Hamas and other factions in Gaza were receiving this sum annually from Tehran, and so the Iranians felt Hamas would ask Riyadh to replace Tehran since Iran fell out with Hamas.
The source added that Hamas immediately denied via social media reports any discussions of a role for Hamas in Yemen.
Fatah, meanwhile, has another perspective on the visit. Pro-Fatah outlets criticised the visit from a Palestinian and inter-Palestinian reconciliation perspective. Last week, pro-Fatah news websites criticised Hamas for undermining the Palestinian coalition government, which Fatah is asking Saudi Arabia to help reach reconciliation with Hamas refusing. According to Hamas’s Risala website, Saudi Arabia asked for official written authorisation from both Fatah and Hamas, and that Hamas had obliged via Meshaal and his delegation. However, the head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, refused to sign such authorisation.
The website quoted Azzam Al-Ahmed, who is in charge of the reconciliation issue in Fatah, as saying that he rejects any agreement or new attempt to replace the Egyptian mediation role. He said: “From the start, Hamas welcomed a Saudi role supporting reconciliation to lay the foundation for a Mecca 2 agreement, whereby the kingdom and other Arab parties would oversee the implementation of any agreement that will be reached.”
In Cairo, a source involved in the reconciliation process said that Riyadh understands Egypt’s role in this regard and there is clear agreement between the two sides on all aspects of the matter. “However, Hamas is trying to promote certain positions for political reasons depending on circumstances,” stated the source.
In conclusion, all parties interested in Hamas interpreted the meeting between King Salman, Saudi officials, Meshaal and the Hamas delegation in their own frames. Iran viewed it as part of Saudi Arabia’s new policies; Egypt viewed it as spelling closer ties with the Muslim Brotherhood; in Ramallah it was seen by Fatah as exploiting the issue of reconciliation. However, no one addressed the Saudi position and what it wanted to achieve through the visit. The only comment was by prominent media personality Jamal Al-Khashoqgi who said after a phone call (without elaborating more) that “Meshaal confirmed Hamas’s support of an Islamic Arab project under Saudi leadership.”
This story was first published in Ahram Weekly on 23 July 2015.