The most recent visit of a senior Hamas delegation led by Khaled Meshaal, the Head of Hamas Political Bureau, to Saudi Arabia on July 16, 2015 came as a surprise for Middle Eastern observers even after months of incremental rapprochement between the militant Palestinian organization and the new Saudi leadership. According to the Hamas daily al-Resalah, the meeting – the first of such kind in three years – was held in Mecca two days after the successful epilogue of the negotiations for the historical nuclear deal with Iran, and will be followed by a second visit within a month by Saleh Al-Arouri, a high-profile member of Hamas Political Bureau. All the signs point to a decisive evolution in Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy strategy, now apparently open to a cooperation with those Islamist organizations and their affiliates that King Abdullah, the current monarch’s predecessor, had aggressively sought to eradicate from the Middle East.
The nuclear deal may have been the catalyst of this startling reversal. Saudi Arabia has been active for months on multiple fronts to counter Iran’s ambitions in the region. Today, the scenario of a substantial financial windfall coming from the implementation of the agreement which Iran could invest in consolidating its regional hegemony is all but unlikely. Behind King Salman’s pursuit of closer ties with Hamas may be Saudi Arabia’s willingness to replace Iran as Hamas’ key financier.
Notoriously dependent on multiple sources of financial support, Hamas’ operating budget benefited from generous Saudi donations estimated at $10 million a year – almost 50% of its budget – in the early 2000s. Saudi Arabia also brokered the short-lived coalition government between Hamas and Fatah in February 2007, and overtly defied the U.S. government’s request to suspend its financial support to the U.S.-designated terrorist organization. Hamas taking over the Gaza strip in June 2007 at one time forced the Saudis to sensibly reduce their funding and paved the way for Iran’s influence, funds, weapons and training. However, the relationship with the Shia power was seriously compromised by the diverging views of the two leaders on the sustained endorsement to Bashar al-Assad’s Iran-allied Alawite regime in 2012. Although Iran did not entirely suspend its funding to Hamas, Khaled Meshaal’s refusal to support the Syrian dictator imposed the necessity to reconsider a strategic realignment for Hamas.
Since then, Hamas has combined Qatar and Turkey’s financial support. In July 2014, Qatar, which currently hosts Khaled Meshaal and other senior Hamas affiliates, pledged $400 million in economic aid to Hamas; moreover, a massive transfer via the Jordanian Arab Bank was blocked at the U.S. government’s behest. Turkey is the home base of Saleh al-Arouri, and the AKP government has both directly and indirectly – mostly through public work – agreed to sponsor the Palestinian extremist organization.
Neither combating ISIS’s looming threat to the Saudi territory nor countering sources of terror financing allegedly offered by Qatar and Turkey qualify as a priority for Saudi Arabia in comparison to the shadow cast by Iran over the region. Saudi Arabia’s partnership with Hamas serves a double purpose: it seeks to take away one of Iran’s satellites by reducing Hamas’ dependence on Iran for funding, while at the same time aiming to increase the Saudi influence in the Middle Eastern basin and in the international arena.
In fact, Saudi Arabia has recently been dealing with Iran’s proxies in the region on many fronts, from supporting anti-Assad rebel groups in Syria to combating the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen. This is why al-Resalah’s version of the July 16 meeting agenda did not convince most observers.
According to Hamas’ platform, the meeting between King Salman and Meshaal was centered on the Saudi monarch’s request to Hamas and Fatah to empower him as mediator in the efforts to broker a reconciliation between the two groups. This would be consistent with what Stratfor experts are regarding as a beneficial side-effect of Saudi Arabia’s closer ties to Hamas – namely the greater role that the country could play in combating the nascent ISIS threat in Gaza.
There are just a few certain elements in the fluid Middle Eastern scenario. One is that Saudi Arabia must be careful to not harm its ties with Fatah and the other regional actors that the country is trying to mobilize to build a Sunni coalition against Iran. Among these, Egypt is particularly sensitive due to its unconditional dedication to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood – of which Hamas is an offshoot – from its national territory. Another is that Hamas must preserve as many avenues of friendship as possible in the Middle East, and will likely be unable to entirely sever its ties with Iran. Saudi Arabia may become its main patron again - not its weapons provider, while Hamas may easily remain Iran’s preferential proxy in Palestine.