DUBAI Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir said on Thursday a visit to the kingdom last week by a Hamas delegation was religious rather than political and Saudi relations with the Iran-allied Palestinian group had not changed.
Saudi Arabia has for years regarded Hamas with intense suspicion because the Palestinian militant group is both a traditional ally of Iran and also an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement Riyadh has often seen as a threat.
"The visit of Hamas to the Saudi kingdom made by Khaled Meshaal and his colleagues (was a) visit to the holy city of Mecca ... The position of the kingdom with regards to Hamas has not changed," Jubeir said.
Jubeir described as inaccurate and exaggerated media reports that the visit was political in nature.
King Salman's meeting on Friday with Meshaal was seen by regional analysts as part of a Saudi effort to shore up Arab unity in the face of a perceived threat from Iran that Riyadh believes has become more urgent since last week's nuclear deal between Tehran and six world powers.
Although the Brotherhood, like Saudi Arabia, is Sunni Muslim, Riyadh distrusts it because it combines a call to conservative religious values that might appeal to the kingdom's citizens with demands to replace dynastic rule with elections.
A Hamas source said the July 17 meeting, the first between the two sides for years, brought together top members of Hamas's political wing with the Saudi king, crown prince and defense minister in a possible rapprochement between the conservative U.S.-allied kingdom. The political situation in the region was discussed at the meeting, the source said.
Hamas has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007 after fighting a brief civil war with Fatah, its main Palestinian rival, and has waged three wars with Israel, which it has vowed to destroy.
Since Salman became king in January, he has stopped short of befriending the Brotherhood but worked to reduce tension with the movement's own allies.
Specifically, he has strengthened Saudi ties with Turkey and Qatar and provided refuge for leaders of Islah, the Yemeni offshoot of the Brotherhood, after they fled the takeover of the capital Sanaa by Iran-backed Houthi forces.
By building rapport with Hamas, Riyadh might mollify some Brotherhood allies and make it harder for Iran to present itself as the region's main defender of the Palestinians against Israel and to portray Saudi Arabia as covertly supporting Israel.
(Writing by Noah Browning and Hadeel Al Sayegh; Editing by William Maclean and Mark Heinrich)