What Are the Saudis and Hamas Planning Behind Our Back?

There is plenty to be said about the emerging shift in geopolitics of the Middle East in the aftermath of Iran's nuclear deal with the West. However, the dramatic aftershock in the region and beyond has to do with 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, you read it right; Hamas -- a group many labeled as a terrorist entity and was once marginalized by the kingdom for being too close to the Muslim Brotherhood movement.

Many observers are obviously perplexed as what this sudden about-face in the kingdom's policy mean. Is it development a reflection of how nervous the Saudis are in the aftermath of the Iran's nuclear deal? Is king Salman surrounding himself with religious clerics rather than secular advisors? Or is the Shiite-Sunni rivalry is about to burst in the Middle East?

Against this backdrop, one wonders why the sudden rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Hamas. Throughout its history, the Kingdom has always mistrusted Islamist parties viewing them as a political threat to its survival. Using history as our guide, Egypt, Syria, Algeria, and Jordan experienced a period of internal turmoil with its Islamist parties mainly the Muslim Brotherhood; a transnational Sunni Islamist organization founded in Egypt by Islamic scholar and school teacher Hassan al-Banna in 1928. Yet, it was Saudi Arabia that funded the group, the Muslim Brotherhood, with whom it shared some enemies and some points of doctrine.

Evidently, the kingdom's latest move leads to more questions than answers. Why Hamas and not other Islamist group? Why at this particular time? The answer lies in geopolitics of the Middle East. Stated differently, the 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 Kingdom's vehement opposition to relinquishing its religious leadership in the Muslim world tops its agenda. How could it not when religion is the only currency that provides Saudi Arabia with legitimacy on the world stage?

While the visit of Hamas to the kingdom has geopolitical dimensions given the inevitable shift in the political landscape of the Middle East, Saudi foreign minister, Adel Al-Jubeir, insists that the recent Hamas visit was for religious. Yet, when pilgrimages visit the holy Ka'ba for religious purpose, they do not engage in extensive meetings with the entire Saudi leadership, including 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 counterbalance 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 believe 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 King Salman is more sympathetic to religious conservatives than his predecessor, the late King Abdullah.

Incidentally, a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member, Qatar, reportedly brokered the Hamas visit. This demonstrates how complicated and convoluted relations in the Middle East are. Yet, lacking an in-depth understanding of the complexities of these sorts of relationships is why our foreign policy establishment often times misses its target objectives because relations with the region are certainly more than a handshake. 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.

But a new regional order based on sectarian identity arising is definitely cause for alarm, given the Middle East's never-ending volatility.