Hamas leadership’s visit to Riyadh raises questions

Friday 07/08/2015
Palestinian President Abbas (top-R) meeting with Hamas leader Meshaal

LONDON - The latest back and forth between Saudi Arabia and Hamas has raised questions over Riyadh’s foreign policy in the re­gion amid opposing claims regard­ing whether Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal’s visit to Riyadh in July constituted an official visit.

Riyadh denied claims that it has changed its policy towards Hamas, an offshoot of the Mus­lim Brotherhood, after Meshaal visited the Saudi capital and met with King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud on July 16th.

Meshaal initially hailed the visit, the first in three years, as “a step in the right direction” in com­ments carried by Hamas’s official website. “We opened a new page in the relationship with the lead­ership of the kingdom,” he said.

However, Saudi Foreign Min­ister Adel al-Jubeir denied that this had been an official visit to the kingdom. “There was no (po­litical) visit by Hamas to the king­dom,” he said in response to media questions during a July 23rd news conference in Jeddah with Egyp­tian counterpart Sameh Shoukry.

“A group from Hamas, includ­ing Khaled Meshaal, visited Mecca for Umrah. They performed the Eid prayers there and offered Eid greetings to the king. There were no meetings,” Jubeir said in com­ments carried by the state-owned Saudi Press Agency.

“The position of the kingdom towards Hamas has not changed, nor its positions concerning sup­porting the Palestinian Author­ity and Egypt’s efforts to preserve stability and security,” Jubeir said.

Egypt, where the Muslim Broth­erhood was in power for one year under Muhammad Morsi and which designated the Islamist organisation a banned terrorist group in December 2013, is one of Saudi Arabia’s closest regional al­lies. The Brotherhood was formal­ly designated a terrorist organi­sation in Saudi Arabia in a March 2014 royal decree by King Abdul­lah bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud.

“Cooperation in countering ter­rorism between the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Egypt shall con­tinue through security channels,” Jubeir said at the news confer­ence, during which he welcomed Cairo’s support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

While Egypt is escalating its domestic campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, the coun­try’s Court of Urgent Matters in June overturned a February rul­ing designating Hamas as a terror­ist organisation, with reports that Egypt’s change of attitude was, at least in part, due to Saudi Arabia.

Responding to Saudi Arabia’s denials, Hamas spokesman Saleh Aruri argued that the meeting be­tween Meshaal and King Salman had not been a “courtesy meeting, as portrayed by others”, adding that Meshaal and senior Hamas figures will pay a visit to Riyadh in August.

Egypt’s media were quick to question whether the visit indi­cated a change in Saudi Arabia’s policy towards the Palestinian group, which has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007, breaching a Saudi-mediated agreement and straining relations to a breaking point.

However, at a time when Saudi Arabia is at war with Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, while also seeking to fend off Islamic State (ISIS) terrorism, many say that Riyadh is seeking to estab­lish a broad-based Sunni regional coalition to defend Arab Gulf in­terests.

One Egyptian diplomat, speak­ing to Egypt’s Al-Ahram newspa­per, said the visit was the “clear re­sult” of tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, adding that Riyadh is now seeking to form a “Sunni bloc” to deal with the threat rep­resented by the Shia-ruled Islamic Republic.

“Saudi Arabia could be partially motivated by a desire to weaken Iran by drawing Hamas away from Tehran’s influence as well,” he added, speaking on the condi­tion of anonymity. Hamas has dis­tanced itself from Iran following Tehran’s involvement in the Syr­ian conflict, including transferring its long-time base from Damascus to Qatar in 2012 and announcing that Tehran has ceased providing financial assistance to the group.