Riyadh Courts Abbas

The Saudis are mistaken if they think they can turn Palestinians in Lebanon against Hezbollah


By Abdel Bari Atwan

Although Saudi Arabia and its regional machinations have been very much in the news in the past few weeks, one recent visitor to Riyadh attracted relatively little media attention. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas remained tight-lipped during his stay last week in the Saudi capital, where he was granted an unusually hospitable reception by his hosts, including King Salman Bin-Abdelaziz who held a reception in his honour.

Most of Abbas’ previous visits of Saudi Arabia have been fleeting and quick affairs, mostly lasting just one day. Saudi officials routinely turned a deaf ear to his requests – especially for financial support – and he would normally return from trips to Riyadh with a deep frown on his face.

The latest visit, which was hastily arranged — more like a summons than a visit by a head of state – coincided with a new Saudi campaign against Iran and its allies, particularly in Lebanon. Inevitably, this raised questions. Was the big Middle East deal that US President Donald Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner are reportedly cooking up with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on the agenda? Was Abbas being asked to support Trump in order to support the Saudi campaign against Iran and Hezbollah?

The Saudi leadership does not want to see a reconciliation concluded between the Palestinian Fateh and Hamas movements, and seeks to enlist Abbas and his Palestinian Authority (PA) in the confrontation it is planning against Hezbollah in Lebanon – specifically by bringing in the 300,000 inhabitants of the country’s Palestinian refugee camps on the pro-Saudi side.

Saudi-Arabia’s current decision-maker Crown Prince Muhammad Bin-Salman intends to bleed Iran from its peripheries – meaning in Lebanon (Hezbollah), Yemen (the Houthi-Saleh alliance) and Iraq (by re-stoking Sunni-Shia sectarian divisions). Bringing the predominantly Sunni Palestinians into the equation is deemed to be a crucial element in this scheme, as ‘cover’ for a confrontation with the Shia in the countries concerned.

This same sectarian card was employed at the outset of the crisis in Syria, with considerable success, particularly within and among supporters of the Hamas movement. But it gradually became less effective as the war dragged on for almost seven years, the Syrian army remained steadfast and cohesive, and the state and its institutions failed to collapse as expected.

The Saudi leadership does not trust Hamas and sees it as a strategic ally of Iran, especially after the movement elected a new ‘hawkish’ leadership in the Occupied Territories. It is banking on Abbas’ institutional ‘legitimacy’, and on Fateh’s continuing influence within the refugee camps in Lebanon, to recruit fighters from those camps on its behalf to take up arms against Hezbollah.

Muhammad Bin-Salman most certainly offered Abbas a political/financial deal of sorts. We do not know its details. The information is simply not available. But the more important question is whether or not he accepted it.

The inhabitants of the Palestinian camps in Lebanon live in miserable conditions. But the vast majority have no truck with sectarianism and would never take up arms against Hezbollah. Hamas’ recent rapprochement with Iran and Hezbollah can only reinforce this way of thinking. The ‘best’ that the Saudi leadership can hope for is for Palestinians in Lebanon to remain neutral and not join Hezbollah’s side in any confrontation – but even that can by no means be guaranteed.