The Hamas problem

Why is Hamas part of the GCC crisis?

Palestinians take part in a rally in support of Qatar, inside Qatari-funded construction project ''Hamad City'', in the southern Gaza Strip
Palestinians take part in a rally in support of Qatar, inside Qatari-funded construction project 'Hamad City', in the southern Gaza Strip [Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters]

Ever since the GCC crisis erupted on June 5, when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Arab countries cut off diplomatic relations and imposed a de facto embargo on Qatar, political observers and people across the region have been mystified by the demands of the anti-Qatar coalition. The incessant calls by their propaganda machines for Qatar to denounce the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement Hamas have been particularly bizarre.

Despite the lack of an immediate cause for such a dramatic escalation, the near hysterical campaign to demonise Hamas, and consequently implicate Qatar as a “state sponsor of terrorism” has been unrelenting. So what are the real reasons for this resentment?

Israeli interests

For over a decade, UAE Crown Prince Muhammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan has been realigning his country’s foreign policy with Israel. Ever since the Dubai Ports World controversy in 2006, where powerful pro-Israel politicians and media outlets in the US branded the UAE as a state sympathetic to terrorism for trying to acquire a company that managed terminal operations at six American sea ports, the UAE has tried to rebrand itself.

It developed intimate links with major policymakers and media personalities that are very close to Israel and its lobby, primarily through the efforts of its US Ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba. As one US senior official once noted, Otaiba and Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer are so close, “they agree on just about everything”. 

Furious after Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian elections, the US and Israel pushed for a regime change in Gaza, clearly a Hamas stronghold. The 2007 attempt to depose Hamas was led by Palestinian security chief at the time, Mohammed Dahlan. That plot was, in fact, financed by the UAE to the tune of $30 million that ultimately ended in disaster and consolidated Hamas’ power, while expelling Dahlan and his co-conspirators from Gaza.

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Dahlan has since moved to the UAE and has been linked to a number of plots across the Middle East. For the past few years, it has become the undeclared, but vital policy of the UAE and its regional allies to install Israel’s favourite candidate as the new president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), who was also described in 2006 by President George W Bush as “our guy”. 

The Arab counterrevolution

However, regional players astutely observe that the main obstacles to Dahlan’s coronation are the current PA president, Mahmoud Abbas, and his political movement, Fatah, as well as Hamas. While overcoming the objections by Abbas and Fatah would be relatively easier due to the massive leverage Israel, the United States and other regional actors have over them, the acquiescence of Hamas and other groups to the installation of Dahlan, they reasoned, would have to be achieved through economic, political, and military measures, including pressuring their current Qatari patron.

As the UAE and Saudi Arabia become Israel's regional allies to endear themselves to the US in their bitter conflict with Iran, they would by association choose to become Hamas and Qatar's enemies, since Qatar has become Hamas's largest regional supporter.

Furthermore, as early as June 2011, the UAE has been the main country supporting and leading all counterrevolutionary efforts against the promises of the Arab Spring. As authoritarian leaders were toppled in one country after another, Qatar’s political leaders and media outlets, particularly the Al Jazeera media network, gave a platform to the popular movements revolting against the old order, particularly the Islamist political groups led by the Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile, the UAE and Saudi Arabia were undermining these revolts in an attempt to reverse this trend, culminating in the July 2013 military overthrow of Egypt’s first democratically elected president.

The UAE has also become very close not only to pro-Israel politicians, but also to the American Islamophobia industry for over a decade. The founder of Blackwater, Erik Prince, who is also the brother of Donald Trump‘s education secretary, has relocated to the UAE and been serving for many years as a security adviser to Al Nahyan. Prince is a well-known Islamophobe and has publicly incited against the Muslim Brotherhood. 

Since 2011, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been vexed over two main concerns. First, they loathed any genuine change to the status quo, especially when cloaked around the establishment of real democratic rule and the promotion of equal citizenship and human rights.

Secondly, the popularity of Islamist parties and their sweeping success in elections across the Arab world in 2011 and 2012 frightened these regimes, particularly Saudi Arabia. They considered the electoral success of these movements a direct threat to their political legitimacy.

READ MORE: Analysts – Qatar supports Gaza, not Hamas

Since Hamas is considered the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the threat of this movement was, fairly or not, extended to Hamas. For political and strategic reasons, Saudi Arabia offered support to Islamist groups, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, for decades. But ever since the Arab Spring phenomena, this marriage of convenience was abandoned in favour of a bitter rivalry that became enmity.

Furthermore, the Saudi regime has claimed twice to have been undermined by Hamas. The first occurred when Hamas did not accept the so-called Arab peace initiative for resolving Israel’s colonisation of Palestinian land, initially promoted in 2002 by then Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah. And secondly, the Saudis blamed Hamas for the failure of the 2007 Mecca reconciliation talks between Fatah and Hamas – brokered by the late King Abdullah, even though other players, particularly the US and Israel, played a crucial role in blocking it.

GCC rivalries

Another important reason for the current open hostility of Saudi Arabia towards Hamas has nothing to do with the Palestinian group, but with the battle of succession to the country’s ailing king.

For the first time since the establishment of the kingdom in 1932, the current crown prince is not a son of the country’s founder, but a grandson, namely, Muhammed bin Nayef Al Saud, 57. However, King Salman has also appointed his young son Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, 31, as second in line. As Mohammed bin Salman has increasingly asserted his authority over much of the country’s military forces and economic resources, the UAE’s Al Nahyan has been cultivating Mohammed bin Salman for the past two years, encouraging him to adopt much of his regional policies in exchange for paving the way for the support of the US and Israel to eventually succeed his father and bypass Mohammed bin Nayef.

But perhaps more significantly, the resentment of Hamas by the two gulf regimes has been due to two other neighbouring countries they hate the most: Iran and Qatar. Due to the perception of its aggressive posture, Iran is considered by most of its Arab neighbours, as well as by Israel and the US, to be a strategic or even existential threat to their vital interests. In addition to its confrontational policies in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, Iran is also often accused of being one of the biggest backers of the Palestinian Islamic resistance groups, namely Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

READ MORE: Gazans worried by Qatari crisis

The dictum “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” has recently become abundantly operative in the region as new alliances are formed, increasingly in open display, especially after Trump’s election. So as the UAE and Saudi Arabia become Israel’s regional allies to endear themselves to the US in their bitter conflict with Iran, they would, by association, choose to become Hamas and Qatar’s enemies, since Qatar has become Hamas’s largest regional supporter.

Furthermore, there is a history of hostility between the UAE and Qatar that lingers in the background as the larger Gulf states try to impose their will on Qatar, while the latter has, for the past two decades, not only asserted its own discourse, but has so far vowed to defy the current challenge and continue to form its own alliances and chart its own independent foreign policy.

The current crisis has largely been a crude attempt by two bigger states to impose their will on a smaller neighbour by intimidation, coercion, and false pretences. Clearly it is not working, and in fact, has badly backfired.

Esam al-Amin is a writer and an expert on the Middle East and US foreign policy. His work appeared on many websites and publications. His articles on the Arab Spring and Middle East politics were translated to many languages. He is the author of The Arab Awakening Unveiled: Understanding Transformations and Revolutions in the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


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