In a July 24 interview with Al Jazeera, a senior Hamas official confirmed rumors that Iran had suspended military assistance to the Palestinian organization. This decision greatly impacts the ongoing power struggle between the political and military wings of Hamas, as Iran was the military wing’s chief patron. Hamas responded to Iran’s decision with increased diplomatic overtures towards Saudi Arabia, and by holding a summit between its leader Khaled Meshaal and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Doha.
Hamas’s Saudi pivot revives a historic partnership. Saudi Arabia funded the majority of Hamas’s operations between 2000 and 2004 (according to Israeli estimates, the GCC contributed $12 million annually to Hamas’s budget compared to $3 million coming from Iran), and only began to scale back support for Hamas in 2004 due to U.S. pressure. Iran’s strident anti-Israel rhetoric made it the ideal sponsor for Hamas after 2004. However, Iran-Hamas relations have deteriorated considerably since 2011 over Iran’s support for the Assad regime in Syria. Relations between the two only began to thaw in late 2014 as Hamas sought a powerful regional ally to counter hostility from Egypt when President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power. Hamas’s pivot towards Saudi Arabia abruptly ended this thaw. By shunning Iran in favor of Saudi Arabia, which is more moderate in its rhetoric toward Israel, Hamas’s political wing may be attempting to rebrand its international image.
Hamas’s growing foreign policy ties with Saudi Arabia and non-MENA regional actors such as Russia—over its traditional allies, Iran, Syria, and Qatar—can be explained by two factors. Hamas may be trying to increase its financial resources by creating a contest between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as both countries will compete to be seen as the greater champion of the Palestinian cause. But the shift is also part of the power struggle between Hamas’s political and military factions over whether to diplomatically engage Israel. Some regional analysts have concluded that important leadership figures in Hamas’s political wing desire a ceasefire with Israel to ease the ongoing Israeli blockade of Gaza.
The military wing’s dominance over the political wing in foreign policy decision-making is directly attributable to the Hamas leadership’s unpopularity in Gaza. Catastrophic economic conditions in Gaza resulting from the blockade and Egypt’s unwillingness to support Hamas have made Hamas prioritize a credible truce deal—which is crucial for its long-term political survival. But the hegemony of the military wing has severely compromised the credibility of Hamas’s offers of a truce to Israel. Iran, which shares the military wing’s opposition to peace with Israel, is also willing to supply Hamas’s military wing with the military capabilities it needs to credibly confront Israel. To ensure that Hamas’s political wing guarantees itself a majority share of financial aid and the upper hand in decisionmaking, Meshaal needs to reverse the balance.
Saudi support for Meshaal could tilt the balance of power in Gaza in favor of the political wing even if Iran resumes financing the military wing’s operations. Saudi patronage could give the political wing the organizational capacity and financial resources it needs to preempt any provocative actions from Hamas’s military wing that might perpetuate an extremist image of the organization. The political wing was already successful in stopping the Qassam Brigades’ July 2014 attempts to capture Israeli hostages and launch a surprise raid on Israel. Meshaal vetoed this plan on the grounds that it would provoke a massive Israeli retaliation and worsen the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Even though half of the 45 Hamas militants who entered Israel were killed and the rest suffered a humiliating retreat, Meshaal’s decision avoided a worse outcome for Hamas. This approach could be replicable elsewhere. If Meshaal can modify Hamas’s policies to ensure Israel has no legitimate rationale for further airstrikes and unite Hamas’s political elites around the peaceful assertion of Palestinian sovereignty rights, his stature will increase within Gaza and internationally, further isolating the military wing.
Hamas recognizes that its pivot towards Saudi Arabia is motivated by necessity, not ideological compatibility. Saudi Arabia’s close ties to President Sisi’s Egypt and its history of diplomatic ties with Hamas’s bitter rivals, Fatah, are at odds with the Hamas establishment’s interests—particularly since large-scale arrests of Hamas activists in the West Bank in July ramped up hostilities between the rival Palestinian organizations. Because of these incompatibilities, Hamas likely regards its relationship with Saudi Arabia as only short-term. Nevertheless, it also recognizes that even a relatively brief period of near-complete isolation for the military wing could materially weaken it beyond repair. Furthermore, Saudi–Israeli relations have improved in recent months due to their collective opposition to the Iran deal, and Hamas political wing’s courtship of Saudi support could increase the credibility of the pro-peace image it is trying to promote and help it secure an agreement in the near future. Any agreement to loosen the Israeli blockade of Gaza will provide some long-awaited economic respite that will count immensely in Meshaal’s favor.
Meanwhile, Iran continues to desire a leadership role in creating an independent Palestinian state, and Rouhani has claimed that Iran will uphold any peace deal the Palestinians agree to. If Meshaal can effectively discredit the military wing as an enabler of Gaza’s economic decline by illustrating how the military wing’s violent approach is contributing to a tighter Israeli blockade, Iran may see Hamas’s military wing as a hindrance to the broader Palestinian cause. Lacking another reliable Palestinian ally—Iran’s relationship with Fatah is uneasy, and its efforts to fund Islamic Jihad were abruptly halted in March 2015 due to Islamic Jihad’s neutrality in the Yemen conflict—Iran could redirect its financial resources to Hamas’s political wing once again. Unlike Saudi Arabia, Iran does not need to balance between Hamas and Fatah, and once sanctions are removed increased financial resources may tempt them to outbid the Saudis for sponsorship of Hamas.
In addition, repaired relations between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as well as Qatar’s uneasy relationship with Iran, means Qatar will shun the pro-Iran military wing and revive its historically cordial relationship with Meshaal. Qatar will be keen to dispel speculation of discord between them and Hamas following Qatar’s diplomatic overtures to Egypt and rumors last January that they planned to expel Meshaal from Doha. Qatari financial aid to Hamas could also dilute Saudi Arabia’s newfound leverage over Gaza’s foreign policy. Playing off the competitive instincts of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Iran could therefore give Meshaal access to an unprecedented amount of financial resources—allowing him to consolidate his hold on power and weather the ongoing economic crisis in Gaza.
Hamas’s transition to a multi-vector foreign policy that moves away from its prior dependence on Iran and Qatar is a bold experiment driven primarily by Meshaal’s need to consolidate power domestically. Deep-seated ideological disagreements with Hamas’s new found ally, Saudi Arabia, suggest the alliance is not sustainable, but that Hamas’s long-term goal is to create a bidding war for its loyalty that will enrich the organization greatly by default.
Samuel Ramani is a journalist and an MPhil student in Russian and East European Studies at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, where he focuses on Russia’s responses to political revolutions in the Middle East.