Saudi Arabia’s warming relations with Hamas might seem strange in the context of the kingdom’s ties to Egypt and Israel, the sworn enemies of the Muslim Brotherhood’s offshoot in Gaza. Major news sources have noted this shift in Saudi policy, which takes a more favorable approach to the Muslim Brotherhood in an effort to solidify a broader Sunni alliance against Shi’ite Iran’s interference in the region.
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But why would Saudi Arabia focus its efforts on building a relationship with a relatively small and militarily weak Islamist organization in Gaza at the risk of alienating two important regional allies?
Egypt and Israel need Saudi Arabia to push Hamas away from a group affiliated with the Islamic State, or ISIS, known as Wilayat Sina' (“Province of Sinai,” or WS) in order prevent regional instability from spreading beyond the Sinai Peninsula.
The rise of salafi-jihadi groups in northern Sinai has added to the preexisting problems of an unstable Egyptian regime barely kept afloat despite billions of dollars of Gulf States funding pouring in. One Israeli official called WS the most effective Islamic State affiliate in the Middle East, and Egyptian officials clearly lack confidence in their military’s ability to perform against it: The government recently instituted a policy of imprisoning any journalist whose report departs from often-fabricated official state narrative in this military campaign.
Another cause for concern in Cairo is WS’s improved tactical expertise, as demonstrated by its coordination of simultaneous attacks on 15 separate targets on July 1, which is attributed in part to the training its fighters received in ISIS camps in Syria. While the Egyptian government’s policy may succeed in keeping its failures below the radar for some time due to its restrictions on freedom of expression, getting bogged down in a long-term military campaign against an indigenous and well-trained guerrilla force is not an ingredient for stability.
The Israelis are also worried about the consequences of an Egyptian military failure to reestablish control in Sinai for three main reasons. First, WS’s attacks on Egyptian personnel cause more turmoil in an already fragile Egyptian state that has been extremely cooperative with Israel on security matters since President al-Sisi’s rise. If al-Sisi’s government falls, it is unlikely that Israel would see a replacement that is as accommodating.
Second, salafi-jihadi groups used Sinai as a base to launch attacks into Israel, including a 2011 attack on a bus headed to Eilat that killed eight Israelis, and they will continue to do so until the Egyptian military regains control of the territory.
Third, Israel’s Negev Bedouin community is fertile ground for a movement like the Islamic State to take root if the conflict spills over the Sinai-Negev border. The Bedouin of the Negev have had a similar experience to the Bedouin of Sinai, including decades of neglect and an adverse relationship with government, political issues to which many attribute the rise of salafi-jihadi antigovernment movements in Sinai. While a few Negev Bedouin have already joined ISIS, others have been arrested for spreading the movement’s propaganda in Bedouin schools and the population as a whole has shifted toward the Islamic Movement, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Israeli offshoot. It hardly seems far-fetched that an anti-government organization with a radical religious orientation such as the Islamic State could gain a following in Israel’s southernmost region.
Interestingly enough, Hamas shares the fears of Israel and Egypt that salafi-jihadi groups will create more instability in the region, as the Islamic State’s growing influence in Gaza could pose a challenge to its authority. The Islamic State launched several attacks on Hamas in the past year, and in response Hamas has attempted to destroy its infrastructure and jail its supporters.
The conflict between Hamas and the more radical salafi-jihadi groups is not new, but may have actually contributed to the growth of radical groups in the Sinai Peninsula because some reportedly fled there to escape Hamas persecution in the Gaza Strip.
Yet, despite its fears of salafi-jihadi groups, Hamas has been offering the Islamic State affiliate access to its long-standing networks for arms trafficking as well as its medical facilities in Gaza, in exchange for help smuggling arms and supplies from Egypt into the Gaza Strip. This cooperation, though not an ideal partnership from Gaza’s perspective due to the threat posed by the groups it is working with, is a result of international isolation of the Palestinian Islamist group – meaning a lack of better options for allies – as well as a shared long-term strategic interest of undermining Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s campaign to disrupt lucrative smuggling operations that alleviate some of the economic pressure on Gaza.
Therefore, it is in the interest of regional stability for Saudi Arabia to pull Hamas into its orbit and isolate WS. This step would not only allow for the Saudi leadership to prove its worth as a regional mediator, but will help its critical allies in the fight against WS by degrading its ability to obtain weapons and medical treatment for its fighters.
In order to bring Hamas into the fold, the kingdom will need to present an alternative solution to cooperating with salafi-jihadi groups to relieve the Palestinians’ economic pressure in Gaza, likely involving Saudi patronage and increased economic cooperation between Israel, Egypt and Hamas. While President al-Sisi and Prime Minister Netanyahu will not be thrilled with the idea of improving Hamas’s economic situation in Gaza under Saudi Arabia’s auspices, it would be wise to do so because a desperate Hamas is willing to cooperate with organizations that even it considers to be radical and threatening to regional stability.
The writer is a research associate in the Middle East Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.