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Jul 27, 2015 | 09:30 GMT

Saudi Arabia and Hamas: A Pragmatic Partnership

(FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • Saudi Arabia will try to recruit various regional proxies, including Hamas, to its Sunni Arab coalition against Iran.
  • Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Hamas will cooperate more in the post-nuclear deal environment.
  • As Saudi influence grows, Iran will have a diminished role in Palestinian affairs.

In the wake of the nuclear accord with Iran, Saudi Arabia has not been content to simply wait and see what shape regional developments take. Riyadh has already become more active as it positions itself as the leader of a Sunni Arab coalition to oppose a rejuvenated Tehran by, for one thing, chipping away at Iran's proxies in the region. One example of this strategy is the developing relationship between Saudi Arabia and Hamas, which Saudi Arabia has worked to strengthen over the past several months. Reinserting itself into Palestinian politics would extend Riyadh's power beyond the Gulf into the Levant and provide for Saudi Arabia to engage both Egypt and Israel beyond the three countries' shared concerns over Iran and the Islamic State. In pursuing closer ties with Hamas, however, Riyadh will have to be careful not to provoke its allies or to push other groups further into Iran's sphere of influence.

A Complicated Relationship

Saudi Arabia and Hamas have a long history of interaction. Hamas is far from financially independent; it has always depended on multiple sources of external support. In the early 2000s, Saudi Arabia was Hamas' chief patron, with some reports claiming that Saudi Arabia provided as much as 50 percent of Hamas' operating budget. Starting in 2004, however, Riyadh reduced this funding, in part because the West began to more closely scrutinize Saudi Arabia's financing of terrorist groups in the wake of Sept. 11 and various suicide attacks claimed by Hamas during the Second Intifada.

When Hamas was briefly elected to head the Palestinian National Authority in 2006, Saudi Arabia publicly defied the United States by ignoring Washington's request to cut off funding to the group. Then, in February 2007, Riyadh helped negotiate what would be a short-lived coalition government between Fatah and Hamas. Even afterward, Saudi Arabia maintained financial support to Hamas and still emphasized the importance of cooperation between Hamas and its rival, Fatah.

It was at this point that Iran increased its support of Hamas. It was a strange relationship on paper: a Sunni Arab militant group descended from the Muslim Brotherhood aligning with a Persian Shiite self-styled Islamic Republic. But Iran was eager to capture any influence it could in Palestine as it looked to connect a crescent of Iranian-satellites from Tehran to the Mediterranean.

After Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in June 2007, abrogating the Saudi-brokered compromise, Iran's influence over Hamas steadily grew. Tehran provided military assistance to Gaza in addition to helping Hamas meet its monthly budgetary requirements. Much to Saudi Arabia's chagrin, Iran played this role for Hamas until 2012, when Khaled Meshaal, Hamas' then and current political leader, broke with Bashar al Assad's Iran-allied Alawite regime in part because of the violent crackdowns al Assad carried out upon Sunni Muslims in Syria.

Iranian support for Hamas did not dry up completely; Iran even increased funding during last summer's Operation Protective Edge, when Hamas and other Palestinian groups clashed with Israeli forces in Gaza. Overall, though, the Shiite power has greatly reduced its funding for Hamas. Hamas has survived in recent years by cobbling together support from Qatar and Turkey. But as it struggles to meet numerous financial obligations, Hamas would benefit from a renewed friendship with Riyadh and the economic perks that come with it. And Saudi Arabia is in some ways a more natural partner for Hamas than Iran, as a result of their shared Arab and Sunni identities.

Riyadh's Broader Strategic Goals

Saudi Arabia's ultimate goal is to build a Sunni, Arab coalition that can counter the imposing shadow Iran is casting over the region. Saudi Arabia is already combating Iran on multiple, more consequential fronts than the Gaza Strip: The kingdom leads a broad coalition of regional powers pushing back against the Iran-backed Houthi advance in Yemen, it supports numerous anti-Assad rebel groups in Syria and it pays Arab Sunni Iraqi tribes to convince them to fight the Islamic State. The warming of ties with Hamas, like Riyadh's recently improved relationship with Sudan, is a less overt tactic in pursuit of the same overall goal.

Backing Hamas can help Saudi Arabia's regional alliance against Iran in three ways. First, by becoming the chief benefactor of Hamas, Saudi Arabia would force its way directly into Levantine regional dynamics. If Hamas tightens its relationship with Riyadh, Egypt and Israel will effectively have to deal with Saudi Arabia whenever an issue with Hamas arises. The more influence that Saudi Arabia can exert in the region, the more likely the United States will be predisposed to side with the kingdom's overall interests.

Second, support for Hamas would allow Saudi Arabia to take credit for helping to combat the nascent Islamic State threat developing in Gaza. There is at least a small group of aspiring Islamic State militants in the Gaza Strip with which Hamas must deal. For example, on July 19, Islamic State sympathizers planted and detonated bombs beneath five vehicles belonging to members of the military wings of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Saudi financial support could help eliminate this embryonic threat by reducing the economic hardship that drives militants to join groups such as the Islamic State. Relative to other Saudi operations to fight the Islamic State, assistance to Hamas is a minor step, but it fits with Riyadh's desire to be seen as the most willing and effective Islamic State opponent in the region.

Third, and most obviously, funding and support from Saudi Arabia would reduce Hamas' dependence on Iran for aid. As Saudi Arabia repairs its relationship with Hamas, it diminishes Iran's ability to exert influence over the Palestinian group. That in turn means Iran will have one less satellite, or proxy, on the periphery of the main battleground, located in the heartland of Greater Syria and Mesopotamia.

As a result, Saudi Arabia has been pursuing closer relations with Hamas for months now, calling on Egypt, its regional ally, to ease restrictions on the group. In fact, it was in part because of discreet Saudi cajoling that Cairo decided to drop Hamas' designation as a terrorist group and to reopen the Rafah border crossing for several long stretches in recent weeks. The most obvious sign of reconciliation between the two groups, however, occurred last week: Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal made a rare trip to Saudi Arabia and had an even rarer meeting with King Salman, during which the two discussed the challenges posed by the Islamic State and the possibility of increasing Saudi financial support for Hamas. Stratfor sources indicate that Meshaal may also have raised the possibility of at least a limited warming of ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia in trying to combat their mutual enemy, the Islamic State. But from Riyadh's point of view, the distrust and enmity run too deep to pursue such an arrangement at this time. Hamas, isolated and poor as it is, must try to preserve as many different avenues of friendship as possible in the region, but the simple fact is that the group has more in common with Saudi Arabia than with Iran.

The Difficulties of Befriending Hamas

In reaching out to Hamas, Saudi Arabia will have to overcome numerous obstacles. Riyadh must make sure that by repairing its relationship with Hamas, it does not harm ties with West Bank-based Fatah, a group that could offer Iran another opening to pursue in Palestine. In the past, Iran has managed to find other Palestinian proxy groups to challenge Hamas and to fulfill its aims, as it did during Operation Protective Edge in 2014 by funding and arming Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The relationship between Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Iran has weakened significantly in recent months — Tehran was not pleased with the Palestinian militant group's neutrality regarding Saudi moves in Yemen. Besides, Palestinian Islamic Jihad is also fundamentally a Sunni, Arab organization. Still, by itself, a strong Saudi relationship with Hamas does not mean Iran has lost all influence in Gaza; it reduces Tehran's options, but does not eliminate them entirely.

Riyadh also risks irritating the very regional powers it hopes to recruit to its Sunni Arab-led, anti-Iran coalition. Relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia have been unusually cooperative in recent months, and the two find themselves with more in common in the wake of the Iran deal. But any militant activity in Gaza could strain ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia if Riyadh is unable to restrain Hamas. Egypt, Turkey and Qatar all have ties with Hamas of varying strength, and though Saudi Arabia could see the ability to influence Hamas' actions as an opportunity to improve relations with those countries, it could also be perceived as a challenge. This is especially the case for Egypt, which is suspicious of Hamas' Muslim Brotherhood doctrines and views Hamas' activities and relationships to be within its sphere of influence.

Despite numerous obstacles to repairing their relationship, Hamas needs a financial backer and Saudi Arabia has the funds to help. Saudi Arabia is trying to build and lead a Sunni Arab coalition against Iran, and to achieve that goal it will have to engage in a great deal of diplomacy and military action, both behind the scenes and more overtly on the battlefields in Syria and Iraq. But Riyadh can also make smaller, more subtle adjustments in its foreign policy. By choosing to support Hamas now, it demonstrates its broader, regional concern with the spread of the Islamic State and proves that it is an influential player in the Levant. Strengthening its ties with Hamas, then, is a small step that both weakens Iranian influence and elevates Saudi Arabia's profile. These kinds of pragmatic relationships are the inevitable product of the U.S.-Iran reconciliation and represent an illustrative microcosm of what overall Saudi strategy will look like in the coming months and years.

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