TIME Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia Bulldozes Over Its Heritage

An aerial view shows the Clock Tower, the Grand Mosque, and surrounding constructions sites in the holy city of Mecca, in 2013.
An aerial view shows the Clock Tower, the Grand Mosque, and surrounding constructions sites in the holy city of Mecca, in 2013. Fayez Nureldine—AFP/Getty Images

Over 98% of the Kingdom's historical and religious sites have been destroyed since 1985, according to the U.K.-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation

For centuries the Kaaba, the black cube in the center of Mecca, Saudi Arabia that is Islam’s holiest point, has been encircled by arched porticos erected some three centuries ago by the Ottomans, above dozens of carved marble columns dating back to the 8th century. But earlier this month, any vestiges of the portico and columns were reduced to rubble, cleared to make way for the Saudi government’s expansion of Mecca’s Grand Mosque.

The $21 billion project, launched in 2011, is designed to meet the challenges of accommodating the millions of pilgrims who visit Mecca and Medina every year. Around 2 million currently visit during Hajj alone, the annual pilgrimage that happens during the last month of the Islamic calendar. But activists charge that the recent destructions are part of a much wider government campaign to rub out historical and religious sites across the Kingdom.

Over the last few years, mosques and key sites dating from the time of Muhammad have been knocked down or destroyed, as have Ottoman-era mansions, ancient wells and stone bridges. Over 98% of the Kingdom’s historical and religious sites have been destroyed since 1985, estimates the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation in London. “It’s as if they wanted to wipe out history,” says Ali Al-Ahmed, of the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington, D.C.

Though the Saudi rulers have a long history of destroying historical sites, activists say the pace and range of destruction has recently increased. A few months ago, the house of Hamza, the Prophet Muhammad’s uncle, was flattened to make way for a Meccan hotel, according to Irfan Al Alawi, executive director of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation. There have even been rumored threats to Muhammad’s tomb in Medina and his birthplace in Mecca.

A 61-page report, published recently in Saudi Arabia’s Journal of the Royal Presidency, suggested separating the Prophet’s tomb from Medina’s mosque, a task “that would amount to its destruction,” Alawi says. “You can’t move it without destroying it.” Moreover, he alleges, plans for a new palace for King Abdullah threaten the library atop the site traditionally identified as the birthplace of Muhammad. Even now, signs in four languages warn visitors that there is no proof that the Prophet Muhammad was born there, “so it is forbidden to make this place specific for praying, supplicating or get [sic] blessing.”

Wahhabism, the prevailing Saudi strain of Islam, frowns on visits to shrines, tombs or religio-historical sites, on grounds that they might lead to Islam’s gravest sin: worshipping anyone other than God. In recent years, the twin forks of Wahhabi doctrine and urban development have speared most physical reminders of Islamic history in the heart of Mecca. The house of the Prophet’s first wife, Khadijah has made way for public toilets. A Hilton hotel stands on the site of the house of Islam’s first caliph, Abu Bakr. Famously, the Kaaba now stands in the shade of one of the world’s tallest buildings, the Mecca Royal Clock Tower, part of a complex built by the Bin Laden Group, boasting a 5-story shopping mall, luxury hotels and a parking garage.

Saudi officials did not respond to interview requests, but in the past, they have said that the expansion project is necessary to cater to the ever-growing number of pilgrims to Saudi Arabia, a number forecast to reach 17 million by 2025. When it’s done, the expansion of the mataf, the area where the faithful circumambulate around the Kaaba, will treble its capacity, to 150,000 people; the Great Mosque will be able to hold 2.5 million.

Amir Pasic, of IRCICA, the culture organization of the 56-nation Organization of Islamic Conference, points out that the logistics for Hajj dwarf those required for a World Cup or Olympics. “Every time has the right to make changes on the existing urban set-up,” he said. “Every generation tries to develop something. The Kaaba is what’s important.”

If Mecca’s new skyline is impossible to ignore, what with 48 searchlights beaming from the top of the Clock Tower, other changes to the landscape are more insidious. “Everyone’s focused on [the two mosque expansion projects], but people are not focusing on what we’re losing in the meantime,” says Saudi activist, poet and photographer Nimah Ismail Nawwab. After blue markings appear on sites mentioned in Islamic histories, says Nawwab, then the bulldozers come–often in the dead of night. “Everything happens at night,” she told TIME by phone from Saudi Arabia. “By the next day in the morning, the monument is gone.”

It’s not just in Mecca, either. Over a year ago, the split in Mount Uhud, north of Medina, where Muhammad was said to have been carried after being wounded in the famous Battle of Uhud was filled with concrete. A fence went up at the base of the mountain, warning would-be visitors that it was just a mountain, like any other. Six small mosques in Medina where Muhammad is believed to have prayed have been locked. The seventh, belonging to Islam’s first caliph Abu Bakr, has been razed to make way for an ATM. Nawwab, along with a small group of historians and activists, has tried to raise awareness by photographing sites and starting a Twitter campaign, but says “it’s a losing battle, despite the fact that what’s being lost is not just Muslim history, but human history.”

When the Taliban blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001, they were met with international condemnation. The response to the demolition activity in the Kingdom, by contrast, has been decidedly muted. “When it comes to Mecca, as far as we are concerned it’s a Saudi question,” says Roni Amelan, a spokesman for UNESCO, the United Nation’s cultural body. The Saudi government has never submitted Mecca for inclusion on the list of World Heritage Sites. As UNESCO’s mandate requires a respect for the sovereignty of individual countries, “we don’t have a legal basis to stake a position regarding it,” adds Amelan.

Muslim governments, perhaps mindful of the power of the Saudis to cut their quotas for how many pilgrims can attend Hajj, have been strikingly silent on the issue. The Organization of the Islamic Conference has also been noticeably quiet on the destruction of the Saudi campaign. One exception has been Turkey, whose Ottoman heritage has also long been under threat. In September, Mehmet Gormez, head of the Dinayet, Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs, told journalists that he told Saudi’s minister of Hajj that the skyscraper overshadowing the Kaaba “destroys history,” the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet Daily News reported. “History is being destroyed in the Holy Land each day,” he added.

For pilgrims old enough to remember the dangerous crush of crowds in the 1980s, the spate of new development may be welcome, offering a chance for comfort on their spiritual journey. For other Muslims, like Ziauddin Sardar, author of the recent Mecca: The Sacred City, the vigor of the Saudi campaign springs from financial jitters. “The Saudis know the oil is going to run out,” he said. “Hajj is already their second major source of income, after oil. They look at Dubai, and Qatar, and ask ‘what are we going to do?’ And they say, ‘We have Hajj, and we’re going to exploit it to the max.’”

Carla Power is the author of If the Oceans Were Ink: A Journey to the Heart of the Quran (Henry Holt: April, 2015)

TIME Saudi Arabia

Easing of Saudi Driving Ban Possible

Aziza Yousef drives a car in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as part of a campaign to defy Saudi Arabia's ban on women driving on March 29, 2014,
Aziza Yousef drives a car in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as part of a campaign to defy Saudi Arabia's ban on women driving on March 29, 2014, Hasan Jamali—AP

The Saudi king’s advisory council has recommended that the government lift its ban on female drivers — but only for women over 30, who must be off the road by 8 p.m. and cannot wear makeup behind the wheel, a member of the council said Friday

(RIYADH, Saudi Arabia) — The Saudi king’s advisory council has recommended that the government lift its ban on female drivers — but only for women over 30, who must be off the road by 8 p.m. and cannot wear makeup behind the wheel, a member of the council told The Associated Press Friday.

The Shura Council’s recommendations are not obligatory on the government. But simply making the recommendation was a startling shift after years of the kingdom staunchly rejecting any review of the ban.

There have been small but increasingly bold protests by women who took to their cars over the past year. The driving ban, which is unique in the world, is imposed because the kingdom’s ultraconservative Muslim clerics say “licentiousness” will spread if women drive.

The council member said the Shura Council made the recommendations in a secret, closed session held in the past month. The member spoke on condition of anonymity because the recommendations had not been made public.

Under the recommendations, only women over 30 would be allowed to drive and they would need permission from a male relative — usually a husband, father or brother — to do so. They would be allowed to drive from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturday through Wednesday and noon to 8 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, the weekend in the kingdom.

The conditions also require that a woman driver wear conservative dress and no make-up, the official said. Within cities, they can drive without a male guardian in the car, but outside of cities, a male is required to be present.

The council said a “female traffic department” will have to be created so that a woman officer would deal with female drivers if their cars broke down or faced assaults, the council member said. It recommended the female traffic officers be under the supervision of the “religious agencies.”

The 150-member Shura Council is appointed by the king, drawing on various sectors of society to act as the closest thing to a parliament in the kingdom, though it has no legislative powers. King Abdullah appointed women to it for the first time, and now there are 30 women members.

The driving ban has long forced families to hire live-in drivers for women. Women who can’t afford the $300 to $400 a month for a driver must rely on male relatives to drive them to work, school, shopping or the doctor.

The ban is part of the general restrictions imposed on women based on strict interpretation of Islamic Shariah law. Genders are strictly segregated, and women are required to wear a headscarf and loose, black robes in public. Guardianship laws require women to get permission from a male relative — usually husband or father, but lacking those, a brother or son — to travel, get married, enroll in higher education or undergo certain surgical procedures.

TIME Hajj

Hajj 2014: The Year of The Selfie

Hajj is an annual pilgrimage for Muslims all over the world

Hajj is a pilgrimage that all Muslims must partake in at least once. It is also the largest annual gathering in the world with millions of people coming to pray at the holy site, Mecca. But this religious tradition has a new element: selfies. Taking a selfie at Hajj has become a trend, especially now that camera phones are no longer strictly banned at the site. However, some people are against taking self-portraits at what is supposed to be “a pilgrimage that contains no boasting or showing of[f]” according to Arab News.

TIME faith

The Hajj Airlift You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

Hajj
Pilgrims arriving at Mecca's Grand Mosque on Oct. 10, 2013, during the hajj pilgrimage Fayez Nureldine—AFP/Getty Images

After thousands of pilgrims were stranded in Beirut on their way to Mecca, one American diplomat saw an opportunity to lend a helping hand.

The annual Islamic Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca kicks off this week, with some 2 million people expected to join. The religious occasion is considered to be the largest annual mass gathering in the world and is, unsurprisingly, accompanied by a litany of logistical hurdles, ranging from transportation to accommodations.

But it could be worse: in 1952, the problem was particularly acute. As TIME reported then, far more pilgrims were headed for Saudi Arabia, where Mecca is located, than had been expected, in part because Saudi Arabia had waived an entrance fee for pilgrims that year. As a result, flights from Beirut–a common layover–were overbooked, and thousands of people found themselves stranded in Beirut on their way to Mecca.

One American diplomat in Lebanon, Harold Minor, saw an opportunity to lend a helping hand and, in so doing, also attempt to mend the U.S.’s then-shaky relations with the Arab world. Here’s TIME’s account of the ensuing “miracle in Washington:”

Minor promptly dashed off a “night action” (most urgent) cable to Washington, pointing out that here was a real chance for the U.S. to make friends in the Arab world. Something of a miracle then happened: the State Department got the point. At Rhein-Main airport in Wiesbaden, Germany, at Wheelus Field in Tripoli, at Orly Field in Paris, U.S. airmen were suddenly alerted for special duty. Three days later, the first of 13 huge U.S. C-54s landed at Beirut’s airport. Next morning Operation Hajj was under way…

Five days later the last of 3,763 stranded pilgrims was loaded aboard the last flight. The airlift had traveled a total of 121,800 miles. Some of the U.S. airmen had spent 27 out of 40 hours in the air, but the trips had been more than worth it. The pilgrims’ airlift had done more good than any other act of the U.S.’s otherwise fumbling and unimaginative action and inaction in the Middle East. It was the one success U.S. diplomacy could claim in a week of continued crises.

The operation was reportedly a huge success and drew praise from Arab leaders and TIME readers alike. Wrote one reader, Nashville resident Robert Alvarez:

What a thrill—to read of our big, bumbling State Department actually showing a little imagination. This is the kind of thing they ought to be doing every day in the year—instead of once a decade . . .

Read the 1952 story about Operation Hajj: Airlift for Allah

TIME energy

ISIS’s Ultimate Goal: Saudi Arabia’s Oil Wells

Saudi Arabia oil
Saudi Arabia has the richest reserves of oil on the planet Marwan Naamani—AFP/Getty Images

The terror group has its sights set on the world's biggest oil reserves

Originally appeared on OilPrice.com

For the terrorist group known as the Islamic State, Syria and Iraq were a good place to start their campaign, but in order to survive and prosper it knew from the outset that it had no choice but to set its sights on the ultimate prize: the oil fields of Saudi Arabia.

It is in that direction that the battle for control of the world’s largest oil fields is currently heading.

Islamic State — which has its origins in al-Qaeda – knows fully well that in order to sustain itself as a viable and lasting religious, political, economic and military entity in the region, it has to follow the same objectives established by al-Qaeda when Osama bin Laden broke off his relations with the Saudi monarchy and vowed to bring down the House of Saud.

Bin Laden’s ire at the Saudi monarchy stemmed from the fact that Saudi King Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al Saud invited the American military to use Saudi Arabia as a staging area to build up forces to take on the then Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein after Iraqi troops occupied Kuwait in August of 1990. Bin Laden objected to the presence of “infidels” in the land of the two holy mosques, and asked the king to allow his outfit to tackle Saddam Hussein’s troops.

Similarly, IS knows that it will only feel secure once Saudi Arabia is part of the Caliphate, and its oil fields are under IS control — which is why the group has two logical next steps.

First, to capture and secure the most important country in the Muslim world: Saudi Arabia.

If the battle for Syria and Iraq attracted tens of hundreds, (some say tens of thousands) of young Muslims, the battle for control of Islam’s two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, are very likely to attract many more fighters into the ranks of the Islamic State.

And second, to take on the United States — the one remaining superpower that could stop its march on the oilfields of Saudi Arabia, and ultimately the rest of the Gulf.

After much hesitation, it now appears that the Obama administration has come around to realizing the true danger posed by IS. Washington, along with some of its NATO allies, is now formulating a plan to defeat IS.

However, it may be wise to point out that Washington’s track record in dealing with Middle East problems has not been something to crow about. As a point of reference, one need only mention Iraq and Afghanistan — both prime examples of how not to do things.

Even if the U.S. can defeat IS militarily, any victory would only be temporary since eventually, U.S. troops will pull out and the remnants of IS would emerge from their respective hiding places, as they did after Saddam Hussein’s capture and death. Indeed, a U.S. intervention — through its massive air campaign — will foment even greater animosity toward the West in general, and the United States, in particular. It’s all déjà vu.

The one power that can effectively move against IS in a manner that would appear legitimate to other Muslims is Saudi Arabia, as Nawaf Obaid, a fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and Saud al-Sarhan, research director at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies pointed out in a joint opinion piece published Sept. 9 in the New York Times.

The authors dispute the widely believed notion that Saudi Arabia created IS and is funding it. “Saudi Arabia is not the source of ISIS — it’s the group’s primary target,” they write.

As Obaid and al-Sarhan put it, “The Saudi leadership has a unique form of religious credibility and legitimacy, which will make it far more effective than other governments at delegitimizing ISIS’s monstrous terrorist ideology.”

What makes IS powerful today is the fact that they laid out their military strategy based on where oil fields are located. The fact that they went after northeast Syria and northern Iraq is not coincidental by any means. Islamic State may be ruthless and brutal, but it is first and foremost a terrorist organization with an astute business plan.

The capture of oil wells in Syria and Iraq has made the group financially self-sufficient. Now it’s all or nothing.

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TIME Foreign Policy

Kerry Enlists Saudi King in War of Ideas Against ISIS

Saudi King Abdullah listens to U.S. Secretary of State Kerry before a meeting at the Royal Palace in Jeddah
Saudi King Abdullah listens to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry before a meeting at the royal palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on Sept. 11, 2014 Brendan Smialowski—Reuters

Persuading would-be jihadists that ISIS distorts Islam “probably far more important than the military,” the U.S. Secretary of State says

On the night of Sept. 11, John Kerry arrived at the royal palace here for a meeting with the King of Saudi Arabia. Abdullah bin Abdulaziz makes his home in this coastal city during the summer months, and the palace is a testament to his country’s vast oil wealth. Kerry entered through a vast atrium beneath a towering powder dome perhaps a hundred feet high. To greet the King, he ascended a carpeted staircase beneath a huge chandelier, and into a grand sitting room where his majesty awaited. The elderly monarch, clad in brown robes and white headscarf, remained seated as Kerry leaned down to kiss his cheeks.

To say the least, Sept. 11 is an awkward date for an American official to be visiting Saudi Arabia. Many consider Abdullah’s government at least indirectly culpable for the terrorist attacks on that day in 2001, thanks to the Saudi kingdom’s generous financial support for Sunni fundamentalists whose harsh, Salafist version of Islam helped to spawn al-Qaeda. “Saudi Arabia created the monster that is Salafi terrorism,” writes Ed Husain of the Council on Foreign Relations. Some suggest even more direct responsibility: former Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Bob Graham believes “there was a direct line between at least some of the terrorists who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks and the government of Saudi Arabia.”

But there was no sign of discomfort and certainly no mention of the date as the U.S. Secretary of State and the Saudi King bantered genially, via a translator, through a short photo opportunity before getting down to business. The U.S.-Saudi diplomatic relationship has long since moved on from Sept. 11. Today, Washington considers King Abdullah a crucial ally in the fight against Islamic terrorism in general — and against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) in particular. During his whirlwind diplomatic tour to assemble America’s coalition against ISIS over the past week, Kerry repeatedly stressed the King’s role in a growing effort to undermine ISIS’ religious legitimacy in the Muslim world. “We are fighting an ideology, not a regime,” Kerry told reporters traveling with him on Monday.

Kerry is so animated by this war of ideas that he calls it even more important than the military campaign against the group. Sitting in a gilded room at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Paris, Kerry sounded irritated at the media’s focus on air strikes and ground forces. “The military piece is one piece,” Kerry said. “It’s a critical component — but it’s only one component.”

“Probably far more important than the military in the end,” Kerry continued, is the effort “to start drying up this pool of jihadis.” The goal is to mobilize Arab leaders, preachers, and media outlets behind a message that ISIS does not represent a “pure” vision of Islam, but a grotesque distortion of it. That, they hope, can blunt ISIS’ ability to recruit new fighters among impressionable young Muslim men. Stopping a fighter from signing up, Kerry said, is “a far better mechanism than having to go chase him down in the battlefield.”

U.S. officials say no one is more important to that effort than King Abdullah. And the King is happy to oblige. While Saudi money has long helped nurture a fundamentalist Sunni doctrine that inspires groups from al-Qaeda to Boko Haram, Islamic radicalism has come to threaten the King as well. This helps to explain why the royal palace in Jeddah is guarded by three gated checkpoints, several armored vehicles and a truck-mounted machine gun at its front entrance. Such groups see Abdullah as an American lackey who defames the holy land by cooperating with infidels. After a spate of al-Qaeda attacks within the kingdom in the mid-2000s, the Saudis have worked extremely closely with the U.S. on counterterrorism.

ISIS seems to have raised the King’s anxiety another notch, however. He has banned Saudis from traveling to join the fight in Syria, lest they return to threaten his regime. Last month Saudi authorities arrested dozens of suspects linked to ISIS — including members of an alleged cell plotting attacks within the country.

But Abdullah wields a potent weapon in his defense: his influence over Saudi Arabia’s religious leaders. The King has a symbiotic relationship with his kingdom’s hard-line clerics, whose words hold sway far across the Muslim world. The clerics recognize Abdullah’s legitimacy in return for funding, official positions and Abdullah’s tolerance of their strict form of Islam — which forbids women from driving and imposes beheadings for offenses like adultery, drug possession and sorcery.

Abdullah can also summon his clerics to action. In a speech last month that a U.S. State Department official calls “unprecedented” in its vehemence, Abdullah denounced radical Islamists for using Islam to justify their actions — and castigated Saudi clerics for not making the point more forcefully. Days later, the kingdom’s top religious authority declared that ISIS and al-Qaeda “are enemy No. 1 of Islam.” Another senior cleric soon declared it “a major sin” to join ISIS. He added that the group’s fighters might avoid damnation if they murder their commanders.

The U.S. strategy doesn’t stop with the Saudis. During a visit to Cairo on Saturday, Kerry also urged Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi to pressure his country’s religious leaders. Cairo is home to two of the most important institutions of Islamic learning, al-Azhar University and Dar al-Ifta al-Misriyyah, making it “essentially the intellectual heart of the Arab world,” as a senior State Department official puts it. “So one of the issues is to have [Egypt's] religious institutions speak out against [ISIS] … to have the imams talk about it in Friday sermons, and to otherwise sort of increase the volume on this message.”

The effort also extends beyond the mosque. The U.S. is pressing major Arab media outlets, including Dubai-based al-Arabiya and Qatar’s al-Jazeera, to broadcast more antiradical programming. (State Department officials say Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Richard Stengel — a former managing editor of TIME — will soon return to the region to pursue that topic.)

But the King is the most important player of all, experts say. “Saudi Arabia is the only authority in the region with the power and legitimacy to bring ISIS down,” wrote Nawaf Obaid, of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and Saud al-Sarhan, of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, in a Sept. 9 New York Times op-ed. “[T]he Saudi leadership has a unique form of religious credibility and legitimacy, which will make it far more effective than other governments at delegitimizing ISIS’ monstrous terrorist ideology.”

Much like the date of Kerry’s visit to the royal palace in Jeddah, it is a deep irony that Saudi Arabia has become so critical to extinguishing the flames of Sunni radicalism it helped to spread. But it’s not an irony that Kerry cares to dwell upon. Asked by TIME on Monday about Saudi Arabia’s past responsibility for radical extremism, the Secretary of State bridled.

“There is no constructive purpose whatsoever served by going backwards,” Kerry said. “There are lots of question marks that people can dig into for history about mistakes that were made,” he added. “Nothing is served right now by chewing that over.”

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: September 10

1. Could a Saudi Arabia-Iran alliance be the key to stopping ISIS?

By Lina Khatib at the Carnegie Middle East Center

2. Microsoft may buy Minecraft for $2 billion. Why? Because the game provides creativity, community, and a unique learning experience.

By Robin Sloan in Medium

3. Apple Pay – the least glamorous of yesterday’s announcements – could upend and vastly expand the mobile payment world.

By Maggie McGrath in Forbes

4. With extraordinary social media use and Internet access, Egypt may yet have a chance at saving itself.

By Enas Rizk at the Elcano Royal Institute

5. The Department of Education is making a smart investment by giving states with strong parental involvement in education an edge in a new grant competition.

By Lauren Camera in Education Week

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Middle East

Hamas Still Has Some Friends Left

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters at parliament in Ankara, Turkey, July 22, 2014.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters at parliament wearing a Palestinian keffiyeh, in Ankara, July 22, 2014. Burhan Ozbilici—AP

Though Egypt has turned its back on Hamas, other countries are coming in from the cold

With the fighting in Gaza intensifying daily, the ruling militant group Hamas is finding itself pushed to the limit. Trying to match Israel’s vast military might is an impossible task, and even finding the resources to launch rocket attacks against Israeli targets could only be achieved by heavy foreign investment.

But which country wants to invest in Hamas? The West certainly doesn’t. The militant Palestinian organization has been a firm fixture on the United States’ Foreign Terrorist Organizations list since 1997. Hamas’ only hope is its neighbors in the Arab world.

Hamas has two clear allies, according to Middle East experts: Qatar and Turkey. Both have given Hamas their public support and financial assistance estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

“Qatar also hosts Hamas’ political bureau which includes Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal,” says Shashank Joshi, Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. “Qatar has a long history of providing shelter to Islamist groups, amongst them the Muslim Brotherhood and the Taliban.”

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, which came to power in 2002, supports what Joshi calls “other neo-Islamist allies.” Though the Turkish government explicitly rejects the label “Islamist”, their social conservatism is inspired by an Islamic ideology that Hamas shares. Last year, Meshaal visited Turkey and met with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for several hours.

Both Qatar — one of the world’s richest states — and Turkey are powerful allies to have, but Hamas might wish for more support given the breadth of the Arab world. It once had it, too. Hamas used to be strongly allied with both Iran and Syria, with the former giving Hamas an estimated $13-15 million a month as recently as 2011, as well as long-range missiles. Hamas’ political bureau used to be based in the Syrian capital of Damascus before its move to Qatar in 2012.

But relations cooled dramatically with Iran and Syria amid sectarian divisions following the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. Iran, a Shia-majority country, backed the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad whose Alawite faith is a branch of Shia Islam. Hezbollah, a powerful Shia Islamist group based in Lebanon, also took Assad’s side.

However Hamas, a Sunni-led faction, sided, as most of the Arab world did, with the rebels. Cue Tehran cutting their allowance, Hezbollah allegedly ordering Hamas members out of Lebanon, and Hamas packing their bags for Qatar.

“Iran’s relationship with Hamas was always problematic,” says Chris Doyle, director of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding. “Hamas is a Palestinian Sunni group and Iran is Shia. Nevertheless, Hamas was their entry into the issue of Palestine.”

Seeking to regain its influence over this issue, Iran has attempted to foster a reconciliation with Hamas over the last 18 months. Farwaz Gerges, professor on the Middle East at the London School of Economics says the conflict in Gaza is the reason. “The current crisis has brought a kind of rapprochement between Iranian leaders and Hamas.”

Hezbollah too, Gerges notes, has invited Hamas back into the fold. On Monday, the Hezbollah-owned television channel Al Manar reported that Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, praised Meshaal for “the persistence of the Hamas resistance.” The TV station added he “strongly supported their rightful demands to end the current battle.”

Gerges is quick to point out that this doesn’t signal “a return to the warm days of the Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas leaders.” However he adds: “Out of this particular crisis, a new realignment might happen.” That may sound like good news for Hamas, but there’s another Arab country that is of late vehemently opposed to it. That would be Egypt, the largest and most influential country in the Arab world and the one responsible for drafting a potential cease-fire.

From 2012 to 2013, Hamas enjoyed Egypt’s munificence under the leadership of former President Mohamed Morsi, a longtime member of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood of which Hamas is an offshoot. When Morsi was ousted last year and replaced with Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, Hamas knew the good times were over.

“The most devastating thing that has happened to Hamas is the ousting of Mohamed Morsi,” comments Gerges. Sisi, whose government has orchestrated a violent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, destroyed Hamas’ tunnel network into Egypt and closed the border crossing at Rafah, devastating Hamas’ finances. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, two of Egypt’s financial backers, are also hostile to Hamas. Like Egypt, they view the Muslim Brotherhood as a clear domestic threat — and Hamas is guilty by association.

But perhaps Hamas doesn’t need Egypt. As the death toll continues to rise in Gaza, there is a groundswell of public sympathy across the Arab world for the group.

“Hamas in terms of people on the street is at the height of its political power in every single Arab country with the exception of Egypt,” says Gerges. “The longer the conflict continues, the more they gain in popularity. And for Hamas, what really matters is the public pulse.”

TIME Iraq

Iraq Leader Under Pressure to Step Aside as U.S. Looks Elsewhere

A moment of truth for Nouri al-Maliki

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki faced growing pressure Friday to make way for a new government, as the U.S. and its Middle Eastern allies turned to moderate Syrian opposition forces to curtail the growing influence of militants who control vast swaths of Iraq.

On multiple fronts, al-Maliki faced a country largely disintegrating before him. A top Shi’ite cleric urged the country’s parliament to pick a new Prime Minister before Monday, which could lead to the ouster of the highly divisive al-Maliki, a Shi’ite who has been criticized for not reaching out to the country’s Sunnis. Abdul Mahdi al-Karbalai, a cleric who represents Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, urged a new leader even as he called for national unity in a country that is quickly fracturing between Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds.

“Iraqis have passed bigger crises than this in the past history,” al-Karbalai, according to the New York Times. “We must not think of dividing Iraq as part of a solution for the current crises, the solution must protect the unity of Iraq and the rights of all its sects.”

In the north, local officials in the largely autonomous Kurdish region defied the demands of religious and government leaders, suggesting they have no intention of giving up the power they seized when Iraqi troops fled as fighters from the militant group ISIS advanced earlier this month.

“We have presented many sacrifices in the past,” Iraqi Kurdistan president Massoud Barzani told the Times. “Our lands have resorted to their origin identity.”

And American support for al-Maliki continued to appear on the wane. In Saudi Arabia, Secretary of State John Kerry stood beside Syrian opposition leader Ahmad Jarba as Jarba decried al-Maliki’s leadership.

“The policies of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, after eight years in power, have resulted in greater division,” Jarba said, according to a State Department readout of a news conference there. “Now the situation is very grave and there are sectarian militias ruling the country.”

Kerry also met with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to coordinate a response to the ISIS militants, whose gains have forced President Barack Obama to deploy a limited number of military advisers to Iraq.

The maneuvering came on a day when officials confirmed for the first time that the American military has begun flying armed drones over Baghdad to protect U.S. troops and officials on the ground. It also followed Obama’s Thursday announcement that the U.S. would provide an additional half-a-billion dollars to support Jarba’s forces, which the White House described as “appropriately vetted” fighters opposing Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Jarba’s group, which is composed of moderate Sunnis, has been fighting radical Islamist militants in Syria, particularly ISIS, as well as the government of Assad. The U.S. and its allies hope that the moderate group will play a key role in ending an insurgency that has given ISIS more territorial control in the region than any other Islamist group in recent memory.

“President Jarba represents a tribe that reaches right into Iraq,” Kerry said. “He knows the people there, and his point of view and the Syrian opposition’s will be very important going forward.”

TIME Foreign Policy

U.S. Weighs Anti-ISIS Strategy in Iraq and Syria

Demonstrators carry the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria's flags in the Iraqi city of Mosul, 360 km (225 miles) northwest of Baghdad, on June 16, 2014
Demonstrators carry the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria's flags in the Iraqi city of Mosul, 225 miles (360 km) northwest of Baghdad, on June 16, 2014 AP

Questions of how lessons from the past decade apply to the growing threat from Islamist extremists in Iraq. Current and former counterterrorism officials tell TIME that the ISIS militant group storming across Iraq seems focused more on its enemies in the region than on Americans thousands of miles away, buying time for a more narrowly tailored response

What did America gain for the blood and treasure it spent in Iraq from 2003 to 2011? The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) over the past year and the collapse of central control by the government in Baghdad in recent weeks suggest to some that the long and costly effort in Iraq yielded little.

But current and former government counterterrorism officials learned at least one important lesson from the fight against al-Qaeda allies in Iraq and elsewhere: restraint. For them, ISIS looks like a growing threat to the U.S., but not an imminent one, for now focused more on its enemies in the region than on Americans thousands of miles away. That buys the U.S. time to see if others can address the threat and to weigh helping them if necessary.

“One of the big questions right now is whether [ISIS] can turn its tactical victories in Iraq into strategic gains,” says a U.S. counterterrorism official. “With only a few thousand fighters, [ISIS] couldn’t have moved as rapidly as it has without the support of some nationalist Sunni groups and sympathetic tribes, some of which are merely drafting off of [ISIS’s] advances and may not cooperate over the long haul.”

The U.S. has been watching for signs that the Sunni tribes, aggrieved at their treatment by the post-Saddam Shi‘ite leadership of Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad, have pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Dua, but so far they have not seen it. That suggests to the officials more of an alliance of convenience between the tribes and ISIS than a long-term commitment to the group’s radical agenda. That pattern played out from 2006 to 2008, when the tribes aligned with ISIS’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, but then turned on the group and drove it out.

America’s approach to counterterrorism outside Iraq has been informed by that experience as well. The success against so-called core al-Qaeda in Afghanistan left loosely linked terrorist franchises around the world aligned more in spirit than operation. At different times over the past decade, the U.S. has faced growing threats from al-Qaeda franchises in Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Nigeria and Yemen. While some of those groups have posed real threats to the U.S., they have often been focused closer to home.

“The evil genius of [Osama] bin Laden was persuading people that the enemy was the far enemy,” says former senior CIA and FBI counterterrorism official Philip Mudd. “Increasingly, I see near-enemy al-Qaedas — in Yemen, in Syria, in Iraq — who want to take over the police station, kill the guards and take over the government, not necessarily saying, I want to spend a lot of time [focused on the U.S.]”

The question is what action the U.S. can take, if any, that will keep ISIS focused locally and attempt to split the tribes away from it. That strategic calculation is informed by the pre-9/11 lesson that local threats can become international threats if they don’t face a local foe, and if they are led by a visionary. “When groups that have a poisonous ideology don’t have to fight the government, idle hands are the devil’s workplace, and they start to think bigger,” says Mudd.

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