The relationship between Hamas and Saudi Arabia is not the best at the moment and is experiencing estrangement that has lasted for several years. Perhaps the main reason for this estrangement is not Palestinian, but due to the regional polarisation occurring between the various components of the region, specifically between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the former’s desire to rally as many friends or allies to confront what it considers the Iranian threat.
Hamas does not appear to be joining regional axes for or against Saudi Arabia, given the fact that its declared policy is refraining from intervening in the internal affairs of other countries. The movement has already suffered from paying the price for being associated with one axes over the other and perhaps the manifestations of the Arab revolutions in recent years is the best example of this.
The latest manifestation of the unstable situation between Hamas and Saudi Arabia was the series of media, political and security behaviours and measures that all confirmed we were facing successive developments leading to the further decline of relations between the two, at least on Saudi Arabia’s part. Meanwhile, Hamas remained silent and restrained, which is what it typically does with the various countries in the region that target the movement, to restore relations in the future.
On 10 May, Saudi Arabia’s Makkah newspaper published a list of 40 Muslim figures around the world, which they classified as terrorists influenced by the idea of the Muslim Brotherhood. This list included Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, founder of Hamas, former Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal, current leader Ismail Haniyeh, along with Hamas figures Mohammad Deif, and Yahya Sinwar.
As soon as the report, attributed to an unknown research centre, was published, angry Palestinian, Arab and Muslim reactions surfaced, especially on social media. The newspaper’s name even became a hashtag on social media, which forced it to remove the report two days after it was published. It is difficult to imagine that a newspaper close to the decision-making circles in Riyadh would publish such a dangerous report without permission or that it would turn a blind eye to it.
During the recent Israeli offensive on Gaza early this month, Saudi activists and bloggers wrote tweets in solidarity with Israel, attacking Hamas. They accused Hamas of working for Iran and Turkey and called for confronting what they described as Hamas’s deadly terrorism.
While Israeli media considered these Saudi tweets to be supportive of Israel in its attack against the Palestinians in Gaza and Israeli research sites quoted the Saudi activists’ and praised them, they faced major criticism from Arab activists who considered their tweets to be a form of normalisation with Israel.
In the same context, the news reported in April that Palestinians living in Saudi Arabia were subjected to several weeks of arrest, threat and prosecution campaigns, the largest and most dangerous carried out by the Saudi security forces in secret. The number of Palestinians arrested and imprisoned has exceeded 30, including students, residents, academics and businessmen. The threat and intimidation campaigns continued, with dozens of Palestinians banned from leaving the kingdom. Palestinians were also subjected to campaigns dismissing them from work, threats to revoke their residencies, deportation and the confiscation of their institutions.
The undeclared reason for the arrests is related to support for Hamas and fundraising for the movement in Saudi Arabia. It is also due to their concern over the situation in Gaza. The accusations directed against the prisoners were mostly sympathy with the resistance in Palestine, their interest in Jerusalem and Gaza, and supporting Hamas.
Amid this negative Saudi behaviour towards Hamas, an opinion poll released by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on 11 May showed striking positive results regarding Hamas’ image in Arab societies, especially in countries that adopt a negative policy towards the movement, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This causes difficulties and challenges for these countries while Hamas scores important points on the Arab public opinion level.
Saudi Arabia’s policy against Hamas was not suddenly launched recently. It dates back to 2014, when the kingdom issued an unprecedented decision to classify the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation. While the decision did not directly include Hamas, Hamas considers the Brotherhood to be its “mother movement”, especially since a source close to the Saudi decision-makers stated at the time that the royal decree includes branches of the Brotherhood in other countries, including Hamas in Palestine.
Hamas did not issue an official position responding to all the Saudi policies, but it is generally worried about the anti-Islamist environment in the region. While Hamas does not consider itself part of the Saudi decision declaring the Brotherhood a terrorist organisation because its ideological association with the organisation does not mean it is organisationally tied to the Brotherhood. Instead, it operates based on its own policies and is not administratively affiliated with the Brotherhood. Moreover, Hamas does not have an organisational presence or offices or headquarters in Saudi Arabia.
While Hamas adopts a “silent” position towards the Saudi policy against it, there has been no contact between them and no Hamas official has been officially received by Saudi officials, with the exception of when Riyadh hosted Hamas and Fatah officials in February 2007 as part of the reconciliation efforts and when former Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal visited in 2015. Since then, no Hamas official visited the kingdom officially, except for during Hajj and Umrah seasons, when they visit Mecca and Madina only and do not make any political contacts.
There are prevailing predictions amongst Hamas, which it has not announced but one can read them through the daily observation of events, that the Saudi policy towards the movement is witnessing a reversal of positions and alliances which cause confusion in the Palestinian political scene. This would make the Palestinian situation more complex and will have heavy and serious consequences, as with each crackdown on Hamas, the Palestinian people pay the security and economic price.
The estranged relations between Hamas and Saudi Arabia began years ago for many reasons, including Saudi Arabia’s support for the American “deal of the century”, which Hamas announced its opposition to, as well as Hamas’ failure to completely align with Saudi Arabia’s policy in the region, as is the case with the Palestinian Authority (PA).
Despite all these differences, Hamas seems keen not to strain the relationship with a country as large as Saudi Arabia, but instead seeks to improve it, despite the difficult situation. This is due to Hamas’ popular base in Saudi Arabia, made up of cultural, media and popular elites, as it is seen as a national Palestinian resistance movement, despite the internal Arab polarisation. The movement seeks to overcome the crisis currently plaguing the region with minimal losses.
Hamas is aware that the relationship with Saudi Arabia is surrounded by many problematic issues that are complicated because the latter has close relations with the US. Moreover, there is Egyptian-Saudi coordination that is mostly permanent with regards to the various Arab affairs and it is the main source of support for the PA. Moreover, although Saudi Arabia does not recognise Israel and does not have official relations with it, normalisation between Riyadh and Tel Aviv is in full swing and Hamas is aware of this.
Hamas remains content with unofficially commenting on the decline in relations with Saudi Arabia in that it is seeking to unite the Arab and Muslim efforts to defend the Palestinian national rights. It has also said that it is interested in strengthening its relations with all the countries and actors in the regional and international arena that support the Palestinians’ just cause and their legitimate right to resist the occupation.
However, the Saudi attack on Hamas may pave the way for Israel’s integration into the region by establishing an alliance between Washington, Saudi Arabia and Israel to confront the common threat posed by Iran and armed groups, including Hamas. Saudi Arabia is trying to present itself as a partner in the war on terror by reining in Hamas, and some readings have gone as far as saying that Saudi Arabia’s insistence to attack Hamas can be understood as part of the efforts to liquidate the Palestinian cause.
Hamas is paying the price for sharp regional polarisation between Saudi Arabia on the one hand and Iran and Qatar on the other, as Hamas retains close ties with them. Until recently, it has been keen on maintaining its relations with both sides at once. While this may be difficult, it does not have many regional relations and therefore it will not make the difficult decision to favour of one side over the other anytime soon.
Finally, Hamas is aware that in its foreign relations, especially with a large country such as Saudi Arabia, it is moving within a minefield and avoids any crisis that may arise. This pushes it to manage its positions towards Saudi Arabia very carefully out of fear that it may anger it or others. It does so based on its foreign policy of mobilising the positions of states in favour of the Palestinians and strengthening their steadfastness. Therefore, it steers clear of the alignments formed in the region, placing it equally distant from everyone based on its principle of not interfering in the internal affairs of any country.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.