Israel's leadership and Israeli travelers are excited after last night's announcement by Saudi Arabia that it would open the country’s airspace to all air carriers. Flights departing from Israel will now be able to follow the shortest route to the Far East and no longer need to make a detour on their way to Asia. Flights from Israel to Thailand will now take eight hours instead of 10 and flights from Israel to Mumbai should take five and a half hours instead of seven and a half.
The Saudi decision is also being hailed as a further sign of rapprochement between the two countries.
After the signing of the 2020 Abraham Accords, Saudi Arabia enabled the passage of direct Israeli flights from Israel to the countries that signed the agreements. Flights from Israel to the Far East — to India, Thailand and other destinations — were not allowed to pass through the Saudi airspace and forced to take a longer rout that bypassed the Arabian Peninsula.
Saudi aviation authorities said yesterday the country’s airspace is now open to all carriers that meet its requirements for overflights. The decision, it was noted, will “complement the efforts aimed at consolidating the kingdom’s position as a global hub connecting three continents and to enhance international air connectivity.”
Ahead of US President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia, several Israeli and American officials said that Washington, Riyadh and Jerusalem were working on the issue, but noted that an agreement might not be reached before Biden’s departure today to Jeddah. Prime Minister Yair Lapid said Thursday that he was optimistic that Riyadh would make the decision. As it happened, the Saudis made the announcement hours before Biden left Israel.
This morning Lapid tweeted, “After a long and secret road, and intense diplomacy with Saudi Arabia and the United States, we are getting up this morning to good news. The Saudi airline network has announced the opening of airspace to Israeli airlines.”
Saying goodbye to Biden at Ben Gurion Airport, Lapid reiterated his appreciation for Saudi Arabia as well as the United States for enabling the move. “This is a first official step of normalization vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia. The decision will allow Israeli airlines to fly directly to Asia and Australia. This means a huge saving in fuel, time and costs. Savings that will be immediately felt in the pockets of Israeli citizens, reducing the cost of airline tickets. I congratulate the Saudi leadership on the opening of their airspace. This is a first step. We will continue to work on this with the necessary caution for the benefit of the Israeli economy, Israeli security and the citizens of Israel.”
Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli congratulated Saudi Arabia, tweeting, “It’s official now. Israeli flights will be allowed to travel through the skies of Saudi Arabia. An important step that will significantly shorten flight times and lower the prices of flights from Israel to the Far East. This is another step toward better and stronger relations with the countries of the Middle East.”
Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman tweeted that the Saudi move “is a significant step in the process of creating a common and new market for the Middle East. We are facing a true, concrete opportunity to upgrade the security and economic reality of the entire Middle East and everything must be done to fully take advantage of it.”
Opposition head Benjamin Netanyahu also chimed in, tweeting, “I congratulate the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, on his decision to expand Israeli flights over the skies of Saudi Arabia. Already two years ago we laid the foundations for normalization with Saudi Arabia when we allowed direct flights to Dubai and Abu Dhabi over the skies of Saudi Arabia.”
Reiterating his pledge earlier this week to bring peace with Saudi Arabia if he is elected prime minister of Israel in November, Netanyahu added, “We also worked to allow direct flights between Israel and Mecca for Arab-Israeli citizens. I intend to bring about full peace agreements with Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, thus promoting the end of the conflict between the State of Israel and most of the Arab world.”
Reports in the past few days indicated that Israel, the United States and Saudi Arabia are indeed working to enable Muslim Israelis to travel directly from Israel to Mecca for the hajj.