Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman intensifies efforts as peacebroker

Mahmoud Abbas and Ismail Haniyeh visit kingdom while Saudis aid prisoner swap between Yemeni factions and seek accord on overturning Syria’s suspension from Arab League

Saudi Arabia has accelerated its peacemaking efforts by hosting rival Palestinian leaders, facilitating a major prisoner swap between warring Yemeni factions and seeking consensus on lifting Syria’s suspension from the Arab League.

The diplomatic moves come as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman continues his drive to diversify the kingdom’s oil-dependent economy and relax its ultra-conservative social restrictions.

On Monday, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas arrived in Riyadh at the invitation of the crown prince for a three-day trip, while Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh separately visited the kingdom for the first time in a decade.

Mr Haniyeh went to Mecca to perform Umrah, the pilgrimage which is especially auspicious during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The Hamas delegation has “not ruled out” meetings with Saudi officials during the visit, according to a Hamas-affiliated website.


Since Hamas won the majority of seats in the 2006 Palestinian legislative election and seized power in Gaza in 2007, Saudi Arabia has repeatedly tried to end the rivalry between Mr Abbas’s Fatah and Hamas. The conflict has divided the Palestinian people at a time Israel has boosted settlement in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank, blocking the internationally and Saudi-supported two-state solution involving the emergence of an independent Palestine.

The simultaneous visits to the kingdom of the Palestinian leaders has sparked speculation that Riyadh could try again to achieve reconciliation now that Saudis and Iranians, who have backed Hamas, have restored relations under an accord brokered by China last month.

Meanwhile, almost 900 prisoners were swapped by Yemen’s warring factions over the weekend under an agreement reached last week in the Yemeni capital by Saudis and rebel Houthis. Tens of thousands of Yemenis have died in the eight-year war between a Saudi-led coalition and Houthi rebels backed by Iran.

The mass exchange, organised by the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross, is regarded as a confidence-building measure intended to boost trust as Saudis and Houthis prepare for another round of talks on ending the war, which has left 20 million out of 33 million Yemenis dependent on international aid.

Last Thursday, the Saudi foreign minister, Faisal bin Farhan, received his Syrian counterpart, Faisal Mekdad, to discuss lifting Syria’s suspension from the Arab League. The following day, the Saudis hosted a gathering of envoys from the six-state Gulf Co-operation Council, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq to press for normalisation of relations with Damascus. Qatar objected and blocked consensus on the move but may relent when faced with a majority in favour of readmitting Syria.

Mr bin Farhan spoke on Sunday with Sudanese transitional council president and army chief Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and rival council vice-president and militia head Gen Mohammad Hamdan Dagalo. He called on them to end the sectarian bloodshed between the army and paramilitaries which has killed 100 and wounded 1,000.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times