By Pinhas Inbari
The ongoing rivalry between PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas and his young challenger Mohammad Dahlan is an open secret on the Palestinian street. What may, however, come as a surprise, is the involvement of Saudi Arabia in the internal Palestinian struggle for power. Recently, the kingdom has dramatically decreased its subsidies to the Palestinian Authority. Furthermore, Abbas is almost never invited to visit any of the Gulf Emirates or Saudi Arabia. Dahlan, on the other hand, is known to have a home base in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as well as a special relationship with Prince Bandar bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia.
Why have Saudi Arabia and the UAE chosen to ally themselves with Dahlan instead of the Muqata'a in Ramallah? An analysis published last weekend in the London-based newspaper 'al-Quds al-Arabi' concluded that Israel and Saudi Arabia share the sense of urgency about the Iranian nuclear threat and may secretly work together to face their joint regional challenge. The article further claims that Iran is set to focus on subversion activity in the Arabian Peninsula in order to tilt the balance against the Sunni countries in the Middle East and shape the result of the Arab Spring in favor of the Shia against the Sunna.
Accordingly, it is likely that the Saudis and the Gulf States are siding with Dahlan because they perceive the Palestinian problem as irrelevant and distracting in the context of the real priorities and challenges they face, preferring to cooperate with Israel against Iran rather than with Ramallah and Gaza against Israel.
The Saudis’ support of Dahlan serves as a signal to Ramallah to give due respect to the challenges and concerns of their fellow Arabs instead of promoting its own agenda above all else. Additionally, both Israel and Saudi Arabia are worried that in the event that President Obama is reelected in November, he will focus on the resolution of the Palestinian problem instead of tackling Iran.
The government in Riyadh has been carefully reading articles published in Washington by former US defense officials, including Stratfor CEO George Friedman and former CIA operative Robert Baer, which suggested that the United States may choose Iran as its Middle Eastern ally over other countries in the region. In addition, America’s perceived weakness in deterring Iranian actions in the Gulf - inability to react to the threats to shut down the Hormuz Straits and President Ahmadinejad’s provocative visit to the disputed Island of Abu Musa - triggered speculations in the Gulf that Iran is about to announce a Persian Gulf Province that would include Bahrain. In fact, only a few days ago Iran launched a seminar in Bushehr to reinforce its legal and historical claims on its side of the Persian Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz.
Another reason behind Saudi Arabia’s support of Dahlan is the development of an alliance between Hamas and Iran. Saudi efforts to reconcile Fatah and Hamas – the so-called Mecca Accords – were an attempt to sever the ties between Hamas and the regime in Tehran. The failure of the Accord resulted in Hamas’ becoming a de facto satellite of Iran. When reports spread that Hamas politburo leader Khaled Mash'al chose the patronage of the Muslim Brotherhood over Iran, the Saudis issued a highly muted reaction, as Hamas has lost its credibility further to the failure of the agreement.
The Saudis were further angered by Hamas’ leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, who promised the Iranians to turn a blind eye to the phenomenon of Sunnis converting to Shia in Gaza. In light of the failure of the Mecca Accords and Gaza’s friendship with Iran, Riyadh did not welcome the recent Fatah-Hamas reconciliation efforts sponsored by Qatar.
Instead, the Saudis distanced themselves even further from Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas’ leadership. As such, Hamas and Fatah’ enemy – Dahlan, gained higher status with the Emiratis and the Saudis almost by default.