Contradicting Biden, Saudis deny opening of airspace is step toward ties with Israel

Riyadh’s FM says move ‘has nothing to do’ with diplomatic relations; also states he’s not aware of any talks on Israel-integrated air defense alliance, after US hailed notion

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal Bin Farhan Al Saud speaks during a press conference after the end of Security and Development Summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Saturday, July 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal Bin Farhan Al Saud speaks during a press conference after the end of Security and Development Summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Saturday, July 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — Contradicting the departing US President Joe Biden, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said Saturday that Riyadh’s decision to open its airspace for all civilian overflights had “nothing to do with diplomatic ties with Israel” and was “not in any way a precursor to any further steps” toward normalization.

Prince Faisal appeared determined to pour cold water over the declared expectations in Jerusalem and Washington that the kingdom’s decision, announced Thursday, to open its airspace to all civilian carriers — a move that will enable flights to and from Israel to China and India through far shorter and less costly routes — marked a first step toward formal relations with Israel.

“No, this has nothing to do with diplomatic ties with Israel,” the minister said in a press conference after the GCC+3 regional summit in Jeddah. “The issue of overflights is a decision we took… in the interest [of] providing connectivity between countries in the world, and we hope that it will make some travelers’ lives easier. It’s not in any way a precursor to any further steps.”

In a speech late Friday night after a pair of bilateral meetings here with Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Biden called the overflights decision by Riyadh “a big deal, not only symbolically but substantively.

“This is the first tangible step on the path of what I hope will eventually be a broader normalization of relations” between Israel and Saudi Arabia, Biden added.

On Friday morning, in a similar vein, Prime Minister Yair Lapid welcomed the move “opening Saudi airspace to Israeli airlines” as “the first official step in normalization with Saudi Arabia.”

“I thank the Saudi leadership for the opening of Saudi airspace. This is only the first step,” Lapid added.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Saudi foreign minister’s remarks.

US President Joe Biden takes his leave of Prime Minister Yair Lapid before departing Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport on July 15, 2022 for Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (Amos Ben Gershom / GPO)

Riyadh made the announcement on opened airspace a day before Biden unveiled the planned withdrawal of an observer force securing a pair of Red Sea Islands in what will allow their transfer from Egypt to Saudi Arabia. The withdrawal was brokered by the US, and required Israeli authorization because the presence of the observer force along with an assurance for freedom of transport around the islands for the Jewish state were part of Jerusalem’s conditions to relinquish them to Egypt as part of their 1979 peace treaty.

Accordingly, the Biden administration pushed Riyadh to take what it framed as steps toward normalization with Israel. The first of these was allowing Israeli overflights and the second was allowing direct flights between Israel and Saudi Arabia for Muslim pilgrims. The latter demand has not yet been finalized, with the White House being forced to temper its Friday announcement on the island transfer by saying it “welcomed related steps under discussion to include direct flights from Israel to Jeddah for next year’s Hajj on approved carriers.”

Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir also sought to dampen speculation regarding Saudi-Israel normalization, telling CNN in a Thursday interview that while such a step was “possible” and a “strategic option,” a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians was a “requirement” before Riyadh would formalize ties with Jerusalem.

Also during his Saturday press conference, Prince Faisal insisted that he was not aware of any talks at the Jeddah summit on including Israel in an integrated Middle East air defense network — an initiative that Washington and Jerusalem have both discussed openly in recent months.

“There was no discussion about a GCC-Israeli defense alliance or anything of the sort. At least I’m not aware of such discussions,” the foreign minister said.

Illustrative: Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces Gen. Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, left, and Commander of the Army Gen. Abdolrahim Mousavi visit an underground drone base tunnel of the Army in the heart of the country’s western Zagros Mountains, Saturday, May 28, 2022. (Iranian Army via AP)

Hours earlier a senior Biden administration official briefing the White House press corps at the summit said including Israel in the integrated air defense network that it is hoping to establish with Mideast allies would be significantly beneficial.

“We believe there’s great value in including as many of the capabilities in this region as possible, and certainly Israel has significant air and missile defense capabilities, as they need to,” the US official said, while avoiding a direct response to a question on whether there had been any progress in advancing the initiative.

The idea of a joint air defense network between Israel and its Arab neighbors was raised during the Negev Summit of foreign ministers from Israel, the US, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Egypt in March.

In late June, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said an air defense pact between Israel and its regional allies to combat Iran was “already in action.”

During a briefing to lawmakers at the Knesset’s Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, Gantz said Israel and its regional allies — under US leadership — were developing a joint defense pact to protect against the threat of drones and missiles by Tehran and its regional proxies.

The pact, dubbed by Gantz, “MEAD — Middle East Air Defense,” is meant to connect air defense systems to combat Iran’s increasing use of drones and missiles in the Middle East.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, right, presents US President Joe Biden with the wing of a drone intercepted by the Iron Beam laser defense system, as Prime Minister Yair Lapid (L) looks on at the Ben Gurion Airport, July 13, 2022. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

While the defense minister expressed hope that there would be a development in the effort during Biden’s Mideast trip this week, a senior US official told The Times of Israel beforehand that no announcement should be expected while the president was in Israel or Saudi Arabia.

However, the senior administration official briefing reporters Saturday said the US is hopeful that there will be “additional announcements” in the coming weeks regarding the integrated air defense system for the Middle East.

“Our allies and partners here in the region… have air missile defense capabilities. We are responsible for contributing to much of those capabilities, and we believe… there is [a] great advantage to trying to see if we can network some of those capabilities together,” the US official added.

Biden himself said in his remarks at the GCC+3 summit that the US is “integrating air defenses and early warning systems to ensure that we can defeat airborne threats.”

Speaking more broadly about the importance of regional integration, Biden said, “The United States will build political, economic, and security connections between the United States — between the US partners wherever possible, while respecting each country’s sovereignty and independent choices. Integration, interconnection — these are the underlying themes of our meeting today.”

Biden flew home from Jeddah on Saturday afternoon, after a five-day trip that began in Israel and included a Friday visit to the West Bank.

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