Gaza and Cairo Feel Winds of Change Blowing From Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s recent moves reflect a change in its foreign policy. This could force Egypt’s president to change his stance against Hamas, and push the latter back to the Arab orbit.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
Egypt's President Sissi meeting with Saudi King Salman, on March 1, 2015.
Egypt's President Sissi meeting with Saudi King Salman, on March 1, 2015.Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Just one day after the court in Egypt ruled that Hamas – the entire Islamist organization, not just its military arm – is a terrorist group, Hamas asked Saudi Arabia to pressure Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi to revoke the ruling. The request is interesting in particular because Hamas seems to think that the new Saudi king, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, will be willing to listen to the organization, which is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood – which Saudi Arabia itself has declared to be a terrorist movement.

It seems that there is some basis to the Hamas approach. Sissi’s quick trip to Riyadh on Sunday was not meant as a courtesy visit to the new king, but rather to hear from him what changes he foresees in his country's policies: will it renew its ties with the Muslim Brotherhood; rehabilitate its relations with Turkey, Egypt’s rival; and, in particular, can Sissi continue to rely on the critical financial aid the kingdom supplies to Egypt.

Sissi’s fears may also, however, have a firm foundation. An important Saudi columnist, Khalid al-Dakhil, wrote on Sunday in the Saudi newspaper Al-Hayat: “Some people in Egypt would like Saudi support to take the form of gifts or open royal grants or a blank check. They don’t, for instance, want Saudi Arabia to become closer to Turkey because of the latter’s sympathy toward the Brotherhood. This constitutes a total disregard for the fact that relations between countries are not based on such a vision because such an approach is emotional and not political.

"The more rational political vision is that the relations between Saudi Arabia and Egypt should not be subject to the position toward the Brotherhood or the position toward Turkey. If Egypt’s stability is a strategic interest for Saudi Arabia, and it is indeed so, it is the duty of Saudi Arabia to deal with the issue of the Brotherhood as a fundamentally internal Egyptian problem.”

Dakhil writes that it is important to remember that Turkey opposes Israel’s “colonial project on the one hand and the Iranian sectarian project on the other.” The Saudi-Egyptian-Turkish troika is a strategic need for all three parties, he says.

The columnist's words reflect a new spirit in the royal court in Riyadh. This is the result of a new viewpoint, say Saudi commentators, which holds that Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy under the late King Abdullah were a failure. The previous king did not succeed in solving the crisis in Syria or preventing the Houthi takeover of Yemen. Moreover, it was unable to halt the Iran's growing influence around the Middle East.

Signs of a turning point

Another Saudi columnist, Jamal Khashoggi, wrote a few days ago that the Islamist reform party in Yemen, which is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, is the only entity in Yemen that is strong enough to resist the Houthi takeover. This is something new, since King Abdullah broke off ties with the Reform Party.

It is no coincidence that Sissi’s visit in Saudi Arabia overlapped with the visit there of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It is likely that Salman’s first trip abroad as monarch will be to Turkey – the very same country that hosts senior Hamas officials, including Salah al-Arouri.

Meanwhile, another Hamas official, Atef Adwan, said in an interview that there are encouraging signs of a change in Saudi policy concerning Hamas. Another media report said senior Saudi officials met with Egyptian representatives with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. In addition, the Saudi king hurried to fire the head of the Royal Court, Khaled al-Tuwaijri, who was among those taking a harsh line against the Brotherhood. All these signs lead to a clear expectation of a turning point in Saudi foreign policy.

The question is whether Hamas is intent on making the strategic decision that stems from the enormous pressure it is under – because of the Egyptian and Israeli blockades on the Gaza Strip, and because it is defined as a terrorist organization – to split from Iran and return to the Arab orbit, instead of remaining in the Iranian circle.

Adwan said it is still too early to talk about breaking relations with Iran. But at the same time, Tehran has set strict conditions for Hamas to receive its continued support. Among the conditions: Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal must retract his criticism of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which led to a complete break in relations between the Assad regime and Hamas – and, of course, to a split with Iran.

Saudi Arabia may demand that Hamas advance reconciliation efforts with Fatah and allow the posting of officials from the Palestinian unity government in Gaza and at its border crossings, as a condition for providing aid.

Hamas has no leverage or pressure to wield today, neither over Iran nor Saudi Arabia. But a Saudi "ray of hope," mostly as far as reconciliation with Egypt is concerned, could very well tip the balance and bring the Gaza-based organization back to the Arab bloc once again.

Such a decision would mean – among many other things – putting paid to the image that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promoted, that Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt see eye to eye with Israel over the need to block Iran and fight Hamas terror.

The new Saudi spirit testifies that there is not necessarily any connection between the goal to block Iranian influence and the struggle against Hamas. The opposite is true. Relations with moderate Sunni Islamist organizations, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, can actually help against Iran on one hand, and against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) on the other.

The problem the Saudis have will be how to reconcile Egypt’s positions with the new Saudi policies. Sissi also wants to know the answer to this dilemma.

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