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Biden hails ‘historic’ Saudi decision allowing Israeli flights over its airspace

US president says move is result of months of diplomacy between Washington and Riyadh; will speak on breakthrough later in the day in Jeddah

President Joe Biden walks down the steps of Air Force One upon his arrival at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv, Israel Wednesday, July 13, 2022. (AP/Ariel Schalit)
President Joe Biden walks down the steps of Air Force One upon his arrival at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv, Israel Wednesday, July 13, 2022. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

US President Joe Biden hailed Saudi Arabia for lifting restrictions on air carriers flying over the desert kingdom, an apparent gesture of openness toward Israel, a White House statement said Thursday.

“Saudi Arabia’s historic decision to open its airspace for all civilian planes, including those flying to and from Israel, is an important step towards building a more integrated and stable Middle East region,” Biden said in a statement.

Biden “welcomes and commends the historic decision” by Riyadh to open its airspace, the White House said, confirming that the measure “includes flights to and from Israel.”

In a statement posted to Twitter hours before Biden is set to become the first US leader to fly directly from Israel to the Kingdom, Saudi Arabia’s General Authority of Civil Aviation said it was announcing “the decision to open the Kingdom’s airspace for all air carriers that meet the requirements of the Authority for overflying.”

The statement did not mention Israel, but it was widely interpreted as ending Riyadh’s longstanding ban on Israeli flights overflying its territory — a key step toward normalization between the two nations

“While this opening has long been discussed, now, thanks to months of steady diplomacy between my Administration and Saudi Arabia, it is finally a reality,” Biden said in the statement.

In an earlier statement, the US president’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said Biden, who will land in Saudi Arabia for a controversial visit later Friday, “will have more to say on this breakthrough later today.”

Biden is scheduled to visit an East Jerusalem hospital and meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem before leaving for Jeddah at around 3:30 p.m.

A man stands under American and Saudi Arabian flags prior to a visit by US President Joe Biden, at a square in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, July 14, 2022. (AP/Amr Nabil)

A Middle East diplomat confirmed earlier that the US had managed to clinch a deal that will see Egypt transfer two islands in the Straits of Tiran to Saudi Arabia.

The US had been seeking to finalize the transfer of the Tiran and Sanafir Red Sea islands from Cairo to Riyadh in time for Biden’s visit to Jeddah, where he will participate in the GCC+3 summit and hold a bilateral meeting with Saudi officials.

Israel handed over control of the two islands to Egypt as part of their 1979 peace agreement, but the sides agreed to demilitarize the islands and to allow the presence of a multinational observer force to remain.

Israel had been seeking similar assurances from Saudi Arabia in order to sign off on the deal, but Riyadh had been hesitant to put the commitment in writing, the diplomat said last week.

But late Thursday, the Middle East diplomat said Israel had “no objection” to Egypt handing over the islands to Saudi Arabia.

The deal had been legally complex to broker because the countries do not maintain official ties and therefore are working through conduits.

The incremental step toward normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel builds on the strong but informal ties the erstwhile foes have developed in recent years over their shared concerns about Iran’s growing influence in the region.

An overhead screen displays a map showing the flight route of an El Al plane from Israel en route to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Monday, Aug. 31, 2020. (Nir Elias/Pool Photo via AP)

In recent years, Saudi Arabia has allowed flights between Israel and Gulf states to cross through its airspace. In 2020, then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly flew to Saudi Arabia for a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and last week several Israeli defense reporters visited the kingdom and published news reports about their welcome.

At a press conference with Prime Minister Yair Lapid earlier Thursday, Biden said he was “optimistic” about the prospects of being able to announce Saudi overflights when he arrives in Jeddah Friday.

In an opinion article ahead of the trip, Biden said the direct travel was a “small symbol” of the warming ties between Israel and the Arab world and “steps toward normalization.”

This photo taken on January 14, 2014, through the window of an airplane, shows the Red Sea’s Tiran (foreground) and the Sanafir (background) islands in the Strait of Tiran between Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Saudi Arabia. (Stringer/AFP)

The kingdom declined to sign onto the Washington-brokered Abraham Accords in 2020 as the US and Israel had hoped, but Riyadh is believed to have given the go-ahead to Bahrain, where it retains decisive influence, to join the normalization agreement with Israel alongside the United Arab Emirates and Morocco.

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