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Saudi Arabia opens airspace for UAE-Israel flights

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Israeli airliners will be able to fly through Saudi airspace, after the Gulf kingdom approved a request from the UAE, on Sept 2, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

Saudi Arabia agreed Wednesday to permit UAE flights to “all countries” to overfly the kingdom, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signalled more direct flights linking the United Arab Emirates with the Jewish state.

The announcement comes after the first direct commercial flight from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi on Monday, which passed through Saudi airspace, to mark the normalisation of Israel-UAE ties.

Riyadh’s decision marks another concrete sign of Saudi Arabia’s cooperation with Israel even after it refused publicly to follow the UAE in establishing diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.

The official Saudi Press Agency said the kingdom had accepted an Emirati request to allow the use of its airspace for “flights heading to the UAE and departing from it to all countries”.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, announced that Monday’s historic first commercial flight of an Israeli aircraft direct to the UAE across Saudi Arabia would not be the last.

“Now there is another tremendous breakthrough,” he wrote in a statement shortly after the Saudi announcement.

“Israeli planes and those from all countries will be able to fly directly from Israel to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and back,” Netanyahu said, without giving any timeline.

“Flights will be cheaper and shorter, and it will lead to robust tourism and develop our economy,” he said.

‘Warming of relations’
Saudi Arabia has said it will not establish diplomatic ties with Israel until the Jewish state has signed an internationally recognised peace accord with the Palestinians.

But the kingdom has cultivated clandestine relations with Israel in recent years, in a shift spearheaded by de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

In a sign of its cooperation with Israel, Saudi Arabia allowed Monday’s groundbreaking flight on an aircraft of Israeli national carrier El Al to cross its airspace, saving it from what would have been a long detour around the Arabian peninsula.

“Today’s announcement signals… the warming of relations between the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Israel,” Marc Schneier, an American rabbi with close ties to the Gulf, told AFP.

“While they are still deeply committed to the Palestinian people, this first step is a big one and should be celebrated.”

In March 2018, Air India launched the first scheduled service to Israel that is allowed to cross Saudi airspace.

It was seen at the time as a sign of a behind-the-scenes improvement in ties between the Arab kingdom and the Jewish state.

However, Saudi Arabia, the Arab world’s biggest economy and home to Islam’s holiest sites, faces more sensitive political calculations than the UAE.

Not only would a formal recognition of Israel be seen by Palestinians and their supporters as a betrayal of their cause, it would also hurt the kingdom’s image as the leader of the Islamic world.

In 2002, Saudi Arabia sponsored the Arab Peace Initiative which called for Israel’s complete withdrawal from the Palestinian territories occupied in the Six-Day War of 1967 and an equitable solution for Palestinian refugees, in exchange for peace and the full normalisation of relations.

But a shared animosity towards Iran, along with Saudi attempts to attract foreign investment to fund Prince Mohammed’s ambitious Vision 2030 economic diversification plan, appear to be pushing the kingdom closer to Israel than ever.


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