We’ll begin with a small conspiracy theory, ostensibly unconnected to what is happening in the Gaza Strip. Sezgin Tanrikulu, the deputy chairman of Turkey’s main opposition party, this week submitted a parliamentary question asking about a possible connection between a $100-million Saudi Arabian donation to a charity foundation that counts Bilal Erdogan, son of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, among its board members, and building permits the Saudi king received.
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In 1984, King Abdullah purchased a lovely hill overlooking the Bosphorus. The opposition says the permits were issued two months after the generous contribution was made, in April 2012. The cooling of political ties between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and particularly between the king and the prime minister, have not stopped the royal house from doing excellent business with Turkey.
It turns out that the tendency to divide the states of the region into pro-Hamas and anti-Hamas groups, with Saudi Arabia in the former and Turkey in the latter, needs some tweaking. Ankara and Riyadh are indeed bitter rivals when it comes to Hamas. Saudi Arabia, like Egypt, sees the Muslim Brotherhood and its branches, such as Hamas, as enemies that undermine the traditional “Arab order.” But at the same time, they cooperate against Syria’s President Bashar Assad. Turkey allows the Syrian opposition to operate freely in its territory, and Saudi Arabia funds some of the activities of opposition groups. Saudi Arabia was seriously burned by Hamas when the 2007 Saudi reconciliation plan fell through, after both Hamas and Fatah signed it. But Saudi Arabia aided Hamas for years before the organization came to power in Gaza.
Hamas cannot rule out the possibility that Saudi Arabia might resume funding in the event Hamas agree to toe the Egyptian line. This was alluded to about two months ago, around the time of the signing of the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement, and recently Riyadh announced that it was donating more than $50 million for the Gaza internal refugees.
Since the Gaza conflict began, Saudi Arabia has publicly supported the Egyptian cease-fire proposal. Gaza is not the apple of its eye, but when Hamas turns the region into a weapon in the hands of its rivals, Saudi Arabia wakes up. Riyadh was not particularly upset by Qatar’s decision two years ago to contribute $400 million for the rehabilitation of the Gaza Strip. The donation had the consent of Egypt, then under the control of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the tacit consent of Israel. Nor was King Abdullah perturbed by Qatar’s efforts to reconcile Jordan and Hamas, or at the refuge Qatar has extended to Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal and other leaders of the organization. Meshal’s severance of ties with Syria matched Saudi policy. Moreover, it generated a major crisis between Iran and Hamas, eliminating one of Tehran’s major tools of influence over the Palestinians.
What did disturb Saudi Arabia, however, was Qatar’s full support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its attacks on the military regime of Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi. Then the Saudis woke up and acted to cut ties between some of the Gulf states and Qatar.
Qatar, together with Turkey, rushed in to fill the financial and political vacuum left by Iran. They were not alone. In April 2013, Meshal paid a “state visit” to Malaysia and was grandly welcomed by then-Prime Minister Najib Razak. Malaysia not only donated generously to Hamas, but this week it emerged that Hamas militants trained in Malaysia.
Since Malaysia is not an Arab country, its actions do not threaten the traditional balance of power in the Middle East. And its ties to Saudi Arabia are excellent; the Saudis are major donors to Malay religious organizations. Qatar, in contrast, is an ambitious state; despite its small size, and because of its great wealth, it seeks to influence regional politics. By Western standards, Qatar seems full of contradictions. It hosts a major U.S. military base, but promotes an Islamist agenda. It makes huge purchases in the West, has branches of Western universities and is also Iran’s partner in the Gulf oil fields. Israel has accused Qatar of supporting terror, and yet Qatar, which expelled its Israeli envoy in 2009, continued to maintain open ties with senior Israeli figures and hosted Israeli tennis star Shahar Peer in 2011 and Olympic swimmer Amit Ivry in 2013.
Hamas did not care about Qatar’s ties with Israel, just as it did not care that Egypt, during the Morsi regime, maintained its military cooperation with Israel or that Turkey, despite the crisis, continued its commercial ties with Israel. Hamas cannot affect the policies of Arab states toward Israel or other countries. It must find its main supporter, whether a Shi’ite state like Iran, a pro-American one like Qatar or non-Arab states such as Turkey and Malaysia, and depend on donations from European states. Reconciliation with Fatah, though it may be incongruent with its core ideology, is vital to the organization’s military and political future.
Meanwhile, Israel now finds itself in the same trench, in terms of opposition to Hamas, with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. But this fragile alliance might crumble as soon as the fighting in Gaza ends. Israel should take advantage of it for as long as it lasts.