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Saudi-Palestinian relations appear to be warming up

Saudi King Salman Bin Abdulaziz receives Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Riyadh, on 23 February 2015. [Thaer Ganaim/APA Images]
Saudi King Salman Bin Abdulaziz receives Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Riyadh, on 23 February 2015 [Thaer Ganaim/APA Images]

Relations between the Palestinians and Saudi Arabia appear to be warming up after a period of remoteness. The Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas, met with King Salman, and Fatah leaders expressed their confidence in Saudi Arabia, especially that the Saudi monarch has taken back the Palestinian file from his son, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. The move was welcomed by the Palestinians.

Will these developments bring the Palestinians closer to Saudi Arabia, which appears to be more hesitant about the "deal of the century" than Egypt? Riyadh is maintaining its contact with Fatah and the PA, but relations with Hamas remain almost non-existent, raising questions about what the Kingdom might offer the Palestinians to regain its regional role following the Khashoggi murder and involvement in the Yemen war.

Earlier this month, the Saudis announced that they will be transferring $60 million to the Palestinian Authority, which is the amount of support for three months, after being months late in sending previous aid payments. The Kingdom's generous resumption of aid suggests that the PA's backing for Riyadh over the Khashoggi killing, and its stated confidence in the Saudi judiciary, has paid off. The PA accepted the Saudi explanation within two weeks of the journalist's killing, and Abbas issued a statement confirming that the authority would stand by Riyadh.

This stance taken by the PA flew in the face of the reaction on the Palestinian street, which saw petitions demanding that the killers be named. Palestinian writers expressed their serious concerns at Saudi Arabia's behaviour in the aftermath of the murder. The popular Palestinian position against the Kingdom was demonstrated by the performance of a formal funeral prayer for Jamal Khashoggi in Al-Aqsa Mosque.

READ: Saudi leads efforts to change Arab Peace Initiative with Israel

It goes without saying that the resumption of Saudi aid to the PA means that it is satisfied with its position on the Khashoggi case. Ramallah has adopted a policy of not disturbing or angering Riyadh, in order to continue to get financial support. The PA also realises that the region is witnessing a degree of political alignment, and it believes that standing with Saudi Arabia provide it with financial and political support. It is also no secret that Abbas is more sure of Salman's position on Donald Trump's "deal of the century" than he is about the Crown Prince's.

In November 2017, relations between Ramallah and Riyadh were strained after Bin Salman asked Abbas to support the US vision for peace with Israel. This led to a chill in relations and the suspension of Saudi support for the Palestinians for several months. However, in July last year, King Salman announced his backing for the Palestinian position on the future of the conflict with Israel, unlike his son, who tried to impose his own vision on Ramallah.

Saudi Arabia's resumption of financial aid for the Palestinian Authority prompts several observations. First, it is difficult to imagine that this has been done without any coordination with Washington because Riyadh does not have the courage to challenge the Trump administration post-Khashoggi, who was writing for the Washington Post at the time of his murder. This suggests that the Saudis received Washington's blessing to continue to provide aid to the PA.

Furthermore, in giving this support to the PA, Saudi Arabia may have wanted to draw a line around its growing links with Israel and curtail Palestinian objections. The result was that the PA refrained from condemning the Saudi-Israeli meetings on the sidelines of the recent Middle East conference in Warsaw.

READ: Saudi, Israel officials met during 2014 Gaza war

The resumption of Saudi support for the PA coincides with Qatar's $150 million given to the Gaza Strip, which reveals the extent of the rivalry between Riyadh and Doha to increase their influence in the occupied Palestinian territories. It also reveals Saudi Arabia's desire not to allow Qatar to monopolise financial aid for the Palestinians, especially in light of the crisis between them since the imposition of the Saudi-UAE-Bahrain-Egypt blockade of Qatar in June 2017. While Hamas thanked Qatar for its support for the Palestinians in Gaza, it was silent regarding Saudi Arabia's support for the PA.

At this stage it is important to note the efforts made by the Saudi government to increase its influence in Jerusalem through aid and economic projects. It is also trying to build closer relations with leading Jerusalemite figures, which may anger the PA and push Ramallah to support the preservation of Jordan's supervisory role with the Islamic endowments in the Holy City, and not facilitate the establishment of a Saudi foothold in Al-Quds. Ramallah and Amman are both interested in continued financial support from Riyadh, but are united in their refusal to be replaced in Jerusalem, especially the Noble Sanctuary of Al-Aqsa, the third "Haram" of the Muslim world.

On the other side of the Palestinian political equation stands Hamas. Its relationship with Saudi Arabia is not at its best given the region's unprecedented political realignment and the new axes that have slowed down and destroyed the Arab Spring revolutions.

Hamas is following the Palestinian and Israeli media reports closely with regard to the steady relationship forming between Saudi Arabia and Israel, especially the visits and security coordination to confront Iran. This has prompted many Palestinians to view the Saudi role with suspicion and concern. The Islamic Resistance Movement has not hesitated to condemn any Arab normalisation of links with Israel without mentioning Saudi Arabia by name.

READ: Saudi Arabia pays $60m to support PA's budget

However, the recent statements by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir at the Warsaw conference revealed the strained relations between the Kingdom and Hamas. He mentioned the movement by name and claimed that it is receiving support from Iran, thus hindering peace in the region.

It is no secret that Hamas is anxious about the growing tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran, because it is keen to maintain decent relations with both. This will be difficult, but the movement doesn't have that many regional allies so it will not play the favourites game. The tension between Riyadh and Tehran, however, may require Hamas to avoid alignment with them both in order not to create its own crisis with one or the other. After all, its relations with Saudi Arabia improved slightly after the former head of the Hamas political bureau, Khaled Meshaal, visited the Kingdom in July 2015. Riyadh is not at all pleased, though, that the movement's relations with Iran appear to be developing rapidly.

Hamas has committed itself previously to generally refraining from issuing statements in support of Iran or organising visits to Tehran, lest it be considered as part of the Iranian axis. Lately, though, it seems to have decided to make such a move regardless of the consequences. While the movement does not particularly like such "axis" labels, the facts on the ground suggest that this is the case.

It is almost certain that Hamas will know that it needs to maintain its relations with Saudi Arabia, even if at the very lowest level, because Riyadh sees itself as the leader of the Sunni world. At the same time, it is unlikely to distance itself from Iran and its financial and military support, despite its quantitative decline due to the financial crisis hitting Tehran. Hamas is keen to maintain ties with both countries and does not want to be backed into a corner by the crises affecting the region. It is likely to maintain an ambiguous stance in its links with Riyadh and Tehran, while maintaining a diplomatic silence on regional issues. To do otherwise may have serious political and financial implications.

At a non-governmental level, Hamas knows that it has a large "popular base" of cultural, media and public elites in the Kingdom which view it as a Palestinian national resistance movement, regardless of internal Arab polarisation. The movement seems determined to let the crisis that is raging in the Arab region bypass it with minimal losses. At the very least, it has no wish to do anything that has a negative impact on the Palestinian cause.

READ: PA intelligence chief met Saudi officials to discuss 'deal of the century'

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

ArticleIsraelMiddle EastOpinionPalestineSaudi Arabia
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