If one needs evidence of shifting geopolitics in the Middle East, put aside for a moment Iran’s controversial nuclear deal with the West. Consider instead last month’s unexpected visit by a high-level delegation from Hamas to the secretive kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a longtime ally of the United States. Yes, Hamas — a group many label as a terrorist entity that was once marginalized by the kingdom for being too close to the Muslim Brotherhood movement.
Many observers are obviously perplexed. Is this development a reflection of how nervous the Saudis are in the aftermath of Iran’s nuclear deal, which will allow it a much larger role in international affairs?
Throughout its history, the conservative kingdom has mistrusted Islamist parties, viewing them as political threats. Egypt, Syria, Algeria and Jordan all experienced periods of internal turmoil because of such Islamist parties, mainly the Muslim Brotherhood, a transnational Sunni Islamist organization founded in Egypt by Islamic scholar Hassan al-Banna in 1928. Yet it was Saudi Arabia that also funded the Muslim Brotherhood, with whom it shared enemies and even points of doctrine.
So why Hamas and not some other Islamist group? Recent agreement between Iran and the Obama administration over the former’s nuclear program has created blistering anxiety in Riyadh, not just concerning economic opportunities for Tehran but expansion of Iran’s sphere of influence and ideology. And the desert kingdom’s vehement opposition to relinquishing any religious leadership in the Muslim world tops its own agenda. How could it not when religion is the only currency that provides the kingdom with legitimacy on the world stage?
Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir insists the recent Hamas visit was for religious, not political, reasons. Yet when pilgrimages visit the holy Ka’ba for religious purposes, they do not engage in extensive meetings with King Salman and his principal deputies. Also interesting: The Hamas delegation included representatives from Egypt, Turkey, Tunisia, Jordan, Sudan and Yemen. And what do these representatives have in common? They’re all Sunnis, the Muslim sect that rivals the Shiite sect running things in Iran. Such friction is what has hobbled Iraq.
All this suggests Saudi Arabia seeks a strong coalition of Sunni countries to act as a united counter-front to Iran. To demonstrate flexibility, Saudi Arabia even released eight Hamas members jailed for illegal political activities in the kingdom. What has not been confirmed is whether the Muslim Brotherhood has been quietly removed from the kingdom’s terrorism list. I’m certain that negotiations regarding this matter were conducted behind closed doors with two key countries: Egypt and Israel.
This rapprochement with Hamas also explains, to some degree, the reason behind King Salman’s decision to reshuffle his cabinet a few months ago. This and other moves suggest the king is more sympathetic to religious conservatives than his predecessor, the late King Abdullah.
Incidentally, a Gulf Cooperation Council member, Qatar, reportedly brokered the Hamas visit. This demonstrates how complicated and convoluted relations in the Middle East are. In this case, though, one now clearly understands the kingdom’s over-arching objective: to recruit as many Sunni political actors across the Middle East as possible to confront Iran and its Shiite allies.
Where do these developments leave the United States? The answer is one of confusion, ambiguity and uncertainty. But a new regional order based on sectarian identity arising is definitely cause for alarm, given the Middle East’s never-ending volatility.
David Oualaalou was U.S. Army Intelligence, an international security analyst in Washington, D.C. He holds a doctorate in public policy, with a focus on homeland-international security, and is an instructor at McLennan Community College.