Hamas leadership’s visit to Riyadh raises questions
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.