Upending Past Alliances: Saudi’s Fraying Relationship with Hamas
Since the founding of Hamas in the late eighties, Saudi Arabia and Hamas have generally had cordial relations, with the Saudis allowing Hamas-related activities like fundraising to take place on Saudi soil. The relationship, however, has gone through some rough times. In the late 2000’s, as Hamas started to become more aligned with Iran, the Saudis were unsurprisingly not supportive. During the Arab Spring, Hamas moved closer towards the Saudis again as they both supported the Syrian opposition. This alignment of positions did not last for long, though. In 2013 as Mohamed Morsi was overthrown, the Saudis threw their support behind the military leaders who staged the coup. Hamas predictably supported Morsi and condemned the coup. The new Egyptian government eventually began to put pressure on Gaza, which then led Hamas to not only resent the Egyptians but to also move closer to Iran, only worsening the relationship between the Saudis and Hamas.
More recently, the Saudis have begun to publicly display their dissatisfaction with Hamas. In May of this year, the Saudi newspaper Makkah published a list of 40 “terrorists,” many of whom were affiliated with Hamas. The organization’s original founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin; current leader, Ismail Haniyeh; and former leader, Khaled Meshal, were only a few of the names mentioned. That same month, Saudi journalists chose to take to Twitter and offer support for Israel in clashes between Israel and Hamas. By June, the Saudi authorities had already arrested over 60 people affiliated with the illicit organization. These few months seriously damaged the relationship between the Saudis and Hamas. These examples illustrate a long-term fallout between the Saudis and Hamas caused by the Saudis’ growing relationships with the West and Israel and enmity towards Iran, which they value more than their relationship with Hamas.
It is interesting that a nation once so virulent in its attitude towards Israel is now distancing itself from Israel’s enemies and even supports the state itself. One important factor in this is the rise of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS). Since MBS’s rise, he has accumulated a dangerous amount of power, showcased by actions such as arresting over 30 high ranking Saudis at the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh and attempting to appeal to the West. This appeal to the West has been driven by economic and military issues: the Saudis need to continue selling their oil on the global stage, and they also need weapons to help support their war in Yemen. This attempt has resulted in a more pro-Israeli stance on the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis. In 2018, MBS claimed that Israel had a right to land in Palestine, something most definitely not uttered by any Saudi politician before him. In appealing to the West and Israel, MBS has also gotten quite comfortable with US President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Kushner acts as a Senior Advisor to the President, a position in which he is responsible for attempting to negotiate a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Kushner and the Trump administration clearly have a pro-Israel bias, which is evident in decisions like moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. By getting close to Trump and Kushner, MBS has chosen to distance himself from the Palestinian cause, a decision that has paid handsome dividends for Saudi Arabian weapons acquisitions. In 2017, the Saudis signed a $350 billion dollar arms deal with the United States that has helped supply the Saudi military in their efforts in Yemen. For the Saudis, it appears to be far more crucial to gain the support of an American administration than it is to support Israel’s enemy.
Hamas’ connections to Iran provide the other motivating factor for the Saudi regime’s shift against Hamas. Regardless of Saudi sentiment towards Hamas and Israel, Iran is the primary enemy of the Saudis. The two are fighting a proxy war in Yemen that has unfortunately created the worst humanitarian crisis in our world today. And although the Saudis are not as invested in the civil war in Syria, they are worried about many of the pro-government militias, many of whom are supported by Hezbollah and Iran. Additionally, Trump’s election in 2016 has allowed the Saudis to be even more hawkish against the Iranians. Trump has supplied the Saudis with weapons to continue the brutality in Yemen. He has also pulled the U.S. out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and used threatening rhetoric against the Iranians. These have both diplomatically isolated the Iranians and negatively affected their economy. All of this has given Saudi Arabia the upper hand in the conflict between the two nations. The poor relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran has also pushed the Saudis more toward Israel, and therefore further away from Hamas. Having the same enemy has allowed the Saudis and Israelis to find common ground.
When analyzing all of these dynamics, it can be seen that a relationship with Hamas is simply not a priority for Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are more concerned with their relationship with the West and their rivalry against the Iranians. These two concerns are interconnected to such a degree as to create a complex system where one change in one relationship can greatly affect the other relationships. As Hamas’ position with Saudi Arabia becomes even more precarious, it is more likely that they will continue to turn to Iran for greater patronage, further isolating them from the Saudis and their Gulf allies. The crown prince has begun to reckon with the dilemma of balancing desires for Western investment and arms with past Saudi policies that supported Hamas.