How Saudi power play could hurt Palestinians

Mahmoud Abbas meets with King Salman in Riyadh, 7 November

Thaer Ganaim APA images

Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammad bin Salman’s brash attempt to consolidate power at home and assert primacy abroad will have ramifications far and wide.

Some of these will be felt in Palestine, where a shaky reconciliation agreement holds out the best hope in a long time for some relief for two million Palestinians in Gaza after 10 years of isolation imposed by Israel and Egypt.

One danger is that reverberations from Riyadh could undo the most important cornerstone of any successful reconciliation: the opening of the Rafah crossing, the only access to the outside world for the vast majority of Palestinians in Gaza.

The crossing at the Egypt-Gaza border has been closed with only rare exceptions over the last four years.

Without such an opening, there will be no upside for Gaza and no incentive for reconciliation.

On Monday evening, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority leader, made an unexpected visit to Riyadh for talks Tuesday with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, setting tongues wagging that he was next for the chop after Saad Hariri announced his resignation as Lebanon’s prime minister on Saturday from the Saudi capital.

But Abbas didn’t announce his own resignation, at least not yet. The official Palestinian news agency WAFA only reported that the two discussed US efforts to revive a peace process with Israel and Palestinian reconciliation efforts, without detail.

Self-fulfilling prophesy

On both issues, Riyadh could have huge impact. Mohammad bin Salman – or MBS, as he is often referred to – seems to have made a big impression on US President Donald Trump, who didn’t hesitate to tweet his support for Saturday’s round-up of royals and current and former high-ranking government officials.

King Salman and MBS “know exactly what they are doing,” Trump wrote, suggesting Washington is right behind whatever it is Saudi Arabia’s leadership is up to.

And whatever that is, the ultimate target appears to be Iran, long a bogeyman in the Gulf with which conflict, while entirely avoidable, is fast becoming self-fulfilling prophesy.

Indeed, Riyadh on Tuesday said Tehran might be guilty of an “act of war” for a missile attack on the Saudi capital over the weekend claimed by Yemen’s Houthi group, with whom Saudi Arabia has been at war since 2015. That marks a serious escalation and it is unclear what happens from here.

Saudi Arabia claims the Houthis are proxies of Iran.

Yemen apart, Saudi Arabia has traditionally avoided direct military engagements. The model usually followed is that of Syria, where Saudi Arabia funded a number of groups fighting the country’s army in an effort – now seemingly failed – to oust President Bashar al-Assad.

The failure to oust Assad, who has been backed to the hilt by Iran, is one reason why Gulf fears of Iranian power are peaking. Iran’s alliance with Syria is now stronger than ever. Iranian influence in Iraq had already expanded dramatically thanks to the 2003 US invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, and opened the way for the majority Shia community to assert control.

And in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia has apparently concluded that Hariri failed in curbing the power of Hizballah, the Shia political party and resistance movement that drove Israel from southern Lebanon in 2000 and thwarted its invasion in 2006.

Thus, the so-called “Shiite crescent” that Jordan’s King Abdullah cautioned against shortly after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq would seem – at least to Gulf eyes – to have become a reality.

My enemy’s enemy

In its outsized fear of Iran, Riyadh has in effect made common cause with Israel – for whom Iran has been a constant thorn in the side – and at a propitious time for both. After former US President Barack Obama’s attempt at defusing world tensions with Iran through the 2015 nuclear deal – over the heads of Israeli and congressional opposition – Trump has walked the opposite direction.

It is now up to an overwhelmingly pro-Israel US Congress to decide how much the US will water down that deal.

That in turn – in a worst-case scenario – could set back in motion an Iranian nuclear program that could then trigger an Israeli military strike, something regularly mooted before the 2015 deal was signed.

If Saudi Arabia seeks war with Iran, who better to fight it for it?

In the short-term, meanwhile, Riyadh wants to ensure that no one else steps out of line and – openly or covertly – builds relations with Iran or otherwise veers from Saudi regional dictates, the reasons it, along with the United Arab Emirates, has ostracized Qatar.

And it is the reason why Palestinian reconciliation could also be at risk now.

One of the key stumbling blocks for Palestinian unity is the question of Hamas’ military wing. In early October – and before a preliminary unity agreement was signed in Cairo on 12 October – a senior Palestinian Authority official let it be known that Abbas would oppose any “Hizballah model” for Gaza.

By this he meant that he would not accept that Hamas keep its military wing, the Qassam Brigades, or any weapons not absorbed into the official Palestinian security services, and that there could be no funding from outside powers that did not go through the official government.

The former, and by extension the latter, is completely unacceptable to Hamas, which has agreed that it will coordinate any military action with Abbas’ Fatah movement but rejected out of hand dismantling the Qassam Brigades.

My way or the highway

So fierce were disagreements that Egyptian mediators convinced both parties to postpone talks on the issue for later in order to reach the preliminary agreement.

Indeed, the signs for reconciliation so far don’t look great. Hamas has done most of the running, rounding up Salafi militants and building a buffer zone for Egypt, dismantling its administrative committee to hand over governance duties to the Ramallah-based government, which has also taken over charge of crossing into and out of Gaza.

In return, Hamas has so far received nothing. There has been no opening of crossings, the sine qua non of any agreement. And Abbas is still refusing to lift sanctions on Gaza that were imposed back in April and which plunged Gaza ever deeper into crisis.

And with Riyadh throwing its weight around, the issue might become more fraught. Senior Hamas leaders traveled to Iran last month after the preliminary agreement was signed, no doubt a signal to Abbas that the movement was intent on maintaining its own relations with the outside world, even after the loss of Qatar, which for years has been the movement’s main financial backer.

But if Saudi Arabia should continue the “my way or the highway” approach, such relations will be anathema to Riyadh, which will pressure Abbas to break off reconciliation, consequences be damned.

Hamas is in a corner, but can only yield so far. Abbas has nowhere else to turn, the fate of the peace process – Abbas’ first and last strategy – now in the hands of Trump, Jared Kushner, the US president’s son-in-law, Middle East envoy and apparent secret confidant of MBS, and, of course, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister.

That’s some quartet to be beholden to. And in the end, unless Cairo’s interests in easing tensions in the Sinai somehow win out, two million Palestinians in Gaza stand to lose.


Omar Karmi is a former Jerusalem and Washington, DC, correspondent for The National newspaper.