King Salman of Saudi Arabia Meets With Hamas Leaders – David Kirkpatrick, Ben Hubbard/The New York Times
CAIRO — King Salman of Saudi Arabia met Friday with top political leaders of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, in the most striking example yet of the new king’s willingness to work with Islamist organizations long considered foes.
Analysts with close ties to the Saudi royal family said the meeting appeared to reflect King Salman’s determination to rally as much of the Arab world as possible against Iran, the kingdom’s chief rival, at a time when the Saudis fear that Iran will emerge empowered by its deal with Western powers to lift economic sanctions in exchange for limits on its nuclear program.The meeting was held in Mecca and included Khaled Meshal, Hamas’s political leader who lives in Qatar. It was a startling reversal from the approach of the previous king, Abdullah, who had led a campaign to roll back or eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates around the region. Hamas is both an offshoot of the Brotherhood and a client of Iran.
But the new king has signaled that he is even willing to work with Brotherhood-style Islamists in his efforts to counter Iran, and analysts suggested Salman might be attempting to pry Hamas away from Tehran.
“The last thing you would expect is that Salman would meet Khaled Meshal,” said Mustafa Alani, an analyst with the Gulf Research Center who is close to Saudi officials, “but now the whole regional environment is changing.”
“Iranian allies need to be dealt with directly in the region,” Mr. Alani said, calling the meeting part of a “comprehensive strategy” to counter Iranian influence.
Saudi leaders have long viewed Brotherhood-style Islamists, especially armed factions like Hamas, as a menace to their family’s power and the kingdom’s stability. After Saudi Arabia backed the military ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Egypt, Saudi Arabia led a regional cold war against the Brotherhood that was reordering the region.
That policy signaled an unusually public alignment of interests between Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Arab neighbors as they moved into tacit alliance against the shared enemies of Hamas and Iran. In Egypt, the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the general who led the military takeover, has relied on billions of dollars in Saudi aid to keep the economy afloat — and to keep the Brotherhood from power.
Since King Salman ascended to the throne, Saudi Arabia has collaborated with Brotherhood-style Islamists in Yemen, where the kingdom is waging an air campaign against a Yemeni rebel group backed by Iran. King Salman has also begun working closely with the Islamist-allied president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The two leaders have joined forces in backing favored Islamist militias fighting the Iranian-backed government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, boosting the rebels new gains.
The Saudi-owned news network, Al Arabiya, reported the meeting with Hamas, confirming its veracity. A Hamas official, Osama Hamdan, confirmed that Mr. Meshal met with King Salman; his son Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the defense minister; and Mohammed bin Nayef, the interior minister. Mr. Hamdan said Mr. Meshal had requested an audience with the Saudi king, and the discussion focused on Palestinian issues and what was considered Israeli aggression in Jerusalem.
Mr. Hamdan said the parties did not discuss the Iranian nuclear deal but did discuss possible Saudi support for reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, the two dominant but feuding Palestinian factions.
A Facebook page run by the Hamas-controlled satellite network, Al Quds, also published photos that appeared to show Mr. Meshal, his deputy Mousa Abu Marzouk, and other officials in Mecca. An unnamed Hamas source quoted by the website said the delegation had met with the head of Saudi intelligence, Khalid bin Ali bin Abdullah al-Humaidan, and prayed with the king.
Mr. Meshal visited Mecca on a religious pilgrimage, making his visit to the kingdom since June 2012, the website reported. He had paid a condolence visit after a death in the royal family that year.
Hamas and the Saudi monarchy both follow the Sunni sect of Islam, while the Iranian government is Shiite. Hamas’s relations with Iran have grown strained since 2011, when it opposed Iran’s support for Mr. Assad, whose forces have killed hundreds of thousands of Sunnis, and displaced millions more in that nation’s civil war. Hamas recently issued a statement supporting the Saudi-led war against the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen.
Mr. Alani, of the Gulf Research Center, said the Saudis intended to undermine any argument that the abandonment of the Arab powers had forced Hamas to become an Iranian client.
“The general idea is that any relationship with Iran is not acceptable, and any justification for that is not acceptable,” Mr. Alani said.
He said Saudi Arabia’s tiny Gulf neighbor, Qatar, helped set up the meeting. Qatar has maintained good relationships with different branches of the Muslim Brotherhood, including Hamas. That had opened a rift with Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies, but King Salman has also sought to repair that breach to fortify the opposition to Iran.
Hamza Abu Shanab, a Gaza-based political analyst close to Hamas, said the group’s leaders had not held a substantive meeting in Saudi Arabia since 2010, when Hamas sought to reassure Saudi leaders about fears that Hamas was passing weapons to the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen.
“Hamas is trying to break the isolation imposed on it since 2013,” he said, referring to the year when Saudi Arabia and its allies backed the takeover in Egypt and began a regional push to roll back the Brotherhood. “Saudi Arabia does not support the armed resistance, yet they sit and talk with Hamas, and this confirms that Hamas can return to its strong presence in the region.”
Still, it was also possible that the king might have a more complicated agenda, reflecting the rise of the Islamic State as yet another regional threat. Militants who identify with the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, have a growing influence in Gaza, the Palestinian territory controlled by Hamas, and they threaten to undermine the Hamas government there. Some Islamic State ideologues consider Hamas to be collaborationist because the group has honored cease-fires with Israel.
The Islamic State now poses a greater and more direct danger to the kingdom than Hamas, so the kingdom might be seeking to help prop up Hamas against the other Islamist militants. Israel, too, might have a preference for stabilizing Gaza in order to deter more dangerous militants from expanding their foothold.
But Dore Gold, director of Israel’s foreign ministry, said he was unmoved by the news of the meeting and was no less hostile toward Hamas than toward the Islamic State extremists.
“I have no indication that Hamas is about to get a divorce from Iran,” he said, questioning whether Hamas was “a potential diplomatic partner or simply part of the same jihadi universe as ISIS.”
Rather than an alternative to the Islamic State, Mr. Gold contended that Hamas had aligned with affiliates of the Islamic State in Sinai for military supplies and training, and added: “As far as Israel is concerned, Hamas remains as problematic as it was in the past.”