It is not possible to interpret the “Umrah” performed by a delegation of Hamas leaders in Saudi Arabia, at the end of the month of Ramadan, without considering its political context and heavy implications. This visit is particularly noteworthy since it comes after a hiatus of nearly eight years, coinciding with the beginnings of the new era in Saudi Arabia; under King Salman bin Abdulaziz and his son Muhammad. During those years, the relationship between the two parties appeared strained and marked by rivalry. In addition, there are approximately 70 detainees, most of whom are Jordanians and Palestinians (some of whom have completed their sentences and left).
The visit, according to Arab diplomatic sources, was not solely religious or symbolic. It included a meeting between the delegation and official Saudi leaders, as well as an exchange of views on major issues. Foremost among these were the future of the relationship between the two parties, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the matter of the movement’s detainees. It was evident that a new chapter would begin between the two parties, concluding the consequential eight-year period for the movement.
The reception of the movement’s leadership by Saudi Arabia and the agreement to meet with them occurred within the context of a sudden “Saudi shift” in regional matters. This shift includes rapprochement with Turkish President Erdogan, lifting the boycott with Qatar after reaching a critical point, easing tensions with the Syrian regime and paving the way for its return to the Arab League (by revoking the decision to freeze its activities), and, most notably, the Saudi-Iranian agreement under Chinese auspices, as well as the pint-up Saudi-Emirati crisis.
The paradox lies in the fact that the gap between Saudi Arabia’s positions before and after the turnaround is neither small nor limited. Instead, it seems to involve significant shifts between enmity, friendship, and alliance. It is well known that Iranian-Saudi relations experienced a period of intense tension, disagreement, and “proxy wars” in recent years. Disputes flared up following the execution of Nimr al-Nimr, the attack on the Saudi embassy, and the severing of relations. Even before that, there was strong Saudi opposition to the US-Iranian agreement towards the end of Barak Obama’s second term. In that aspect, the Saudi political discourse clearly held Iran responsible for all regional crises, and praised the Abraham Accords and Arab-Israeli normalization, under the pretext that the greatest danger to Gulf security today is Iranian. Then suddenly, there was an agreement with Iran, negotiations with the Houthis, rapprochement with the Assad regime, and hosting a Hamas delegation.
These significant shifts raise fundamental questions that necessitate more detailed discussions and call for a deeper analysis of what lies beneath the surface. Key questions include: To what extent can the Saudi turnaround go in shaping new policies? What does this shift aim to achieve in terms of Saudi Arabia’s international and regional positioning? Are we discussing, for instance, strategic choices that involve distancing from American-dominated stances and adopting more independent policies in the long term, or is the issue merely a disagreement with the Democratic administration in the White House and the United Arab Emirates (given the recent emergence of disagreement with the latter)?
Can we envision a new leap in a different direction, or should we consider that the new era in Saudi Arabia does not involve jumping as much as it does manage interests flexibly in a highly volatile international and regional environment? Consequently, do today’s Saudi positions exhibit greater dynamism, flexibility, and adaptability?
If there are clear indications of Saudi Arabia’s intentions with the new era (since 2015), they are embodied in the evident ambition of the Saudi leadership to become one of the prominent regional powers, and even the leading force in the Arab regional system. This would enable them to have significant influence over the rest of the Arab countries, in terms of proposing positions, alternating stances, and determining policies, whether by diverging from or aligning with regional powers like Iran, Turkey, and Israel.
The second clear milestone is represented by Saudi Arabia’s crisis with democratic administrations in particular, starting from the era of President Barack Obama, continuing with the current administration, and even during the tenure of former US President Donald Trump. Consequently, it is evident that Saudi Arabia’s perspective of the region and the world around it has significantly changed. This, in turn, influences Hamas’ bets on the Saudi shift, and it is essential to understand the new equations at play.