A look at Hamas and Saudi Arabia’s rocky relationship

Ali Abbas Ahmadi

The New Arab  /  April 19, 2023

A senior Hamas delegation travelled to Saudi Arabia this week ahead of a widely expected rapprochement between the de facto Gazan government and Riyadh. 

The meeting coincides with a visit to the Saudi capital by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who leads the rival Fatah group and heads the Palestinian Authority, which controls the occupied West Bank. 

Hamas and Saudi Arabia have had a turbulent relationship over the years. If the meeting is confirmed, however, that may be on the cusp of changing. 

Hamas-Saudi relations

Formed out of an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s, Hamas initially had good relations with Saudi Arabia. 

Over the years, ties have become strained as the Palestinian Islamist movement veered closer to Iran in the early 2000s.

In 2007, Hamas and Fatah fought a brutal conflict for control of Gaza after the collapse of a proposed power-sharing deal. Hamas emerged victorious and took control of the Palestinian enclave, while Fatah was expelled – leading to a major division between the two Palestinian factions that continues to this day. 

Saudi Arabia attempted to bring the warring sides together through the Mecca Agreement, but its subsequent failure contributed further to the deteriorating relations between Riyadh and Hamas. 

Hamas welcomed the election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi in Egypt following the Arab Spring in 2012. 

This pushed Saudi Arabia, which banned the Brotherhood following the military coup that toppled Morsi, to sever ties with Hamas due to its relations with the group. The kingdom subsequently detained several leading Hamas figures, including the former head of Hamas abroad, Maher Salah.

Saudi Arabia’s support for Morsi’s removal exacerbated the tensions and put a stop to official visits by Hamas leaders to Riyadh. 

Hamas in the meantime was squeezed by Cairo’s new government under military leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, which forced Hamas to further rely on Iran for support. Since then, its relationship with Iran – Saudi Arabia’s great rival till just a few months ago – significantly improved, exemplified by an official Hamas visit to meet with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in July 2019.

Hamas has tried to improve relations with Saudi Arabia over the past years but to no avail. Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal visited the kingdom in 2015 to meet with King Abdullah, which did not amount to much. 

The Saudis for years have prohibited Hamas from operating in the kingdom and arrested dozens of its members – including Mohammed al-Khodari, head of its local branch, in 2019.

What has changed now?

The past few years have seen a changing geo-political landscape in the Middle East that the Palestinians – both Hamas and Fatah – have had to adjust to. 

The so-called Abraham Accords in 2020, where Israel normalized relations with a series of Arab states – including the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco – backed by the Trump administration – came as a big blow to the Palestinian cause. 

Their increasing regional isolation has forced them to look eagerly for partners in the region. 

Saudi Arabia’s apparent pivot towards China, an increasingly likely rapprochement with Iran and warming relations with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad – all of whom have supported Hamas in the past – gave the group an opportunity to try and gain another ally.

Last September, senior Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh told Russia Today that his movement wanted to reconcile with Saudi Arabia. 

In February this year, Saudi Arabia released Palestinians suspected of having ties to the group. Hamas welcomed the move and said in a statement: “We affirm our keenness on positive relations with our brothers in Saudi Arabia and all brotherly countries in the service of the Palestinian cause and our Arab and Islamic nation.”

Hamas hoped the decision to release the prisoners would be “a prelude to opening a new page with the brothers in Saudi Arabia”, the statement added. 

Saudi Arabia’s restoration of diplomatic relations with Hamas’s ally Iran was also welcomed by the group, and provided a shot in the arm in attempts to normalize ties with Riyadh. 

“We believe that this important step is in the interest of the Palestinian cause and supports the steadfastness of our people in the face of the occupation and its continuous aggression against our land, people and sanctities,” they said in response. 

Hamas’s forwardness is also likely an attempt to dissuade Saudi Arabia, which has made overtures towards Israel under pressure from the US, from fully normalizing ties. 

Ali Abbas Ahmadi is an Indian journalist at The New Arab