Analysts say that Sunni Riyadh is trying to exert influence amid its ongoing feud with Shiite Iran
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was unexpectedly summoned this week to Saudi Arabia for impromptu meetings with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed. The Palestinian leader received the call while in Egypt, where he discussed with his counterpart Abdel Fattah al-Sisi efforts to jump-start peace negotiations with Israel as well as the unity deal recently forged between Abbas’ Fatah faction and Hamas, which was brokered by Cairo.
Last week, the PA took control of the Palestinian side of Gaza’s borders with Egypt and Israel, the first concrete step towards implementing the reconciliation agreement. Abbas is slated to assume full responsibility over the Strip by December 1.
During the PA leader’s visit to Riyadh, the Saudi King reaffirmed his government’s long-standing support for the Palestinians in international forums and its commitment to providing “all that is required to bring about the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital.”
Abdul Haj Ibrahim, head of the Political Science Department at Birzeit University in Ramallah, contended to The Media Line that “Abbas was brought to the kingdom as part of the Saudi campaign to recruit Sunni Arab leaders to its side of the ongoing feud with [Shiite] Iran and Hizbullah,” which is playing out with deadly consequences in proxy wars in Syria and Yemen.
“It’s a new alignment of the Arab forces in the area,” he said.
In this context, Ibrahim explained that the House of Saud is working to ensure that Palestinians living in Lebanon side with Riyadh, especially in the wake of Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s sudden resignation. In his announcement, Hariri cited fear of assassination for his decision and blamed Iran for dividing the Arab world, whereas Saudi Arabia accused the Lebanese government of declaring war on the kingdom by failing to rein in Hizbullah which dominates Beirut’s military and political apparatuses.
Riyadh has also blamed the Islamic Republic of fomenting further unrest in Yemen, where the two countries are backing opposing sides in the ongoing civil war. Over the weekend, a ballistic missile fired from Yemen at an airport in the Saudi capital was intercepted by a U.S.-made Patriot defense battery. Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister subsequently called the attack “an act of war” and claimed that the rocket had been manufactured in Iran and possibly launched by Hizbullah fighters from territory controlled by Shiite Houthi rebels, whom Tehran supports militarily.
Analysts also believe that the House of Saud remains concerned over the prospect of the incorporation of Hamas members into the Palestinian government, amid a push by the group to enhance ties with Iran.
Earlier this month, Hamas’ deputy leader Saleh al-Arouri held a public meeting with Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon, which came just days after a high-ranking Hamas delegation, led by al-Arouri, visited Tehran and met with senior Iranian officials.
In this respect, Mazen Safi, a political analyst based in Gaza, believes that King Salman summoned Abbas in order to position himself as a power broker—while sidelining Iran—ahead of the formation of the Palestinian unity government. “Support from Arab countries is crucial and Abbas’ trip reinforces the need to assist the Palestinians against all obstacles,” he asserted. “Palestinian reconciliation requires the efforts of all Arab countries—and not just the Palestinians—since it will positively affect the region.”
For his part, Palestinian Vice President Mahmoud Al-Aloul cautioned against predicting what will transpire from Abbas’ meetings in Saudi Arabia and instead suggested taking a wait-and-see approach. “There wasn’t a specific reason for the [Saudi] invitation [to Abbas],” he claimed. Adding to the apparent confusion, Abbas Zaki, the former representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Lebanon and a member of Fatah’s Central Committee, told The Media Line that he was not even aware of Abbas’s visit.
This comes on the backdrop of U.S. special envoy Jared Kushner’s secret trip to Saudi Arabia late last month, which reportedly led to” developments” on the Israeli-Palestinian front. To this end, President Donald Trump is slated to reveal a peacemaking blueprint that is expected to break from the status quo of bilateral talks between the two sides and instead pursue a regional approach to ending the conflict.