Saudi King Salman .
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Saudi Arabia has reached out to the Islamist Hamas movement, which controls the Gaza Strip, inviting its leaders to Riyadh, and offering to negotiate between Hamas and the rival Fatah movement. The outreach to Hamas, which is still being funded by Iran, is one way that the Sunni Saudi Arabia is trying to cement alliances with other Sunni states in the Middle East.
It is also part of new Saudi King Salman’s more activist policy in the region, which has ranged from public talks with Israel to being in the forefront of air strikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen.
“Under King Salman, Saudi Arabia is acting as a regional power,” Theodore Karasik, of the Institute of Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai, told The Media Line. “The whole idea is to pull together a Sunni bloc of countries to kick out Iranian influence (in the region). Riyadh would be the stepping stone for a Sunni-led bloc of countries.”
Early next month, King Salman will meet with President Obama in Washington – his first visit there since ascending the throne. On his way back to the Middle East, he is expected to stop in Egypt. On the agenda will be Egypt’s relationship with Hamas.
Relations between Egypt and Hamas have deteriorated since Egyptian president Abdel Fatah el-Sisi launched a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and previous president Mohamed Morsi, who was sentenced to death earlier this year. Hamas is an offshoot of the same Muslim Brotherhood movement, and under Morsi, ties with Hamas were close.
“There is a systematic crackdown on the Brotherhood and it is becoming more evident because of the execution verdicts and the deaths of the two parliament members,” Maha Azzam, an expert on Egypt at Chatham House in London told The Media Line. “The aim is to hit really hard at the opposition and weaken the Muslim Brotherhood.”
One of the reasons that Hamas is moving closer to Saudi Arabia is hopes that King Salman can intervene with Sisi to open the Rafah crossing from Gaza into Egypt. It has become increasingly difficult for the 1.8 million Palestinians in Gaza to leave as both Israel and Egypt have kept their borders closed.
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Hamas, which is also Sunni, is still being funded by Shi’ite Iran, although Palestinian media reports say that money has decreased sharply, and Hamas is facing a serious financial crisis.
For Saudi Arabia, it is an opportunity to become the regional leader of a moderate Sunni bloc also supported at least quietly by Israel, which also strongly opposes the Iran nuclear deal. In June, the incoming director general of Israel’s foreign ministry, had a public meeting in Washington with Anwar Eshki, a retired Saudi general and long-time adviser to the Saudi King.
Both came to speak at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations and both pointed to Iran as the chief threat to regional stability. Saudi Arabia has long feared that a nuclear Iran would destabilize the region and that Saudi Arabia could be a target of an Iranian strike.
While the Obama Administration says that the nuclear deal currently being debated in Congress will make it less likely that Iran will become a nuclear power, Israel and Saudi Arabia fear that Iran will deceive the international community and continue to develop its nuclear program.
“There are those in Saudi Arabia who are seeking closer ties with Israel and vice versa,” Karasik said. “Saudi intelligence officials have been meeting quietly with officials from Mossad. This kind of cooperation established a base for the two sides to meet and with the Iran threat many people feel the two countries will be forced closer together.”
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