ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — In a historic milestone, an Israeli passenger plane flew through Saudi Arabian airspace Monday on the first direct non-cargo flight between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
El Al Flight 971, carrying high-level Israeli and US delegations, flew southeast down almost the entire length of Saudi Arabia to reach its destination in Abu Dhabi. It was the first time an Israeli plane was given permission by the kingdom to use its airspace.
The plane brought senior officials from Washington and Jerusalem to the Emirati capital to lay the groundwork for the so-called Abraham Accord between Israel and the UAE, which was brokered by the US and announced earlier this month.
On board were US President Donald Trump’s senior adviser Jared Kushner and US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien as well as Israel’s National Security Council head Meir Ben-Shabbat, among others.
By crossing Saudi airspace, the Boeing 737-900 jet, from Israel’s national carrier fleet, was able to shave nearly four hours off the flight time. About 1.5 hours after takeoff from Tel Aviv, the plane buzzed over Riyadh.
From Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to members of his staff on board the flight as it hovered above Riyadh.
In a video message shared to his social media accounts, the prime minister was seen on the phone with members of the Israeli delegation, cheering the “historic day” as he traced his finger over a map of Saudi Arabia and outlined the flight route.
התרגשתי לשוחח בטלפון עם המשלחת הישראלית לאבו דאבי בדרך לעשיית שלום היסטורי.
אחרי מאמצים אדירים שהובלתי במשך שנים, סוף כל סוף הבאנו ״שלום תמורת שלום״. ???????????????????? pic.twitter.com/W5apdskHuo
— Benjamin Netanyahu (@netanyahu) August 31, 2020
The historic El Al flight from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi also seemingly strayed from its flight path and entered Oman from the UAE for several minutes before crossing back into the Emirates. The reason for entering Omani airspace was unclear.
Pilot Tal Becker, speaking from the cockpit as the plane readied for takeoff from Tel Aviv, confirmed the route over Saudi Arabia.
“Shalom and welcome on EL AL flight 971 from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi,” Becker told the passengers. “We are very pleased to host you on this historic inaugural flight from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi.
“This flight records two significant events in the history of the State of Israel and in the region heralding another step towards regional peace — for the very first time an Israeli-registered aircraft will overfly Saudi Arabia, and, after a nonstop flight from Israel, land in the United Arab Emirates.
“The duration of the flight with the shortened route over Saudi Arabia will be three and a half hours, instead of what would have been approximately eight hours as we fly eastbound,” the pilot explained. “At the end of this historic nonstop flight, the wheels of this aircraft, with the flag of the State of Israel on its tail, will touch down on the runway in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE. This will be another significant event in our history, just as El Al was there when peace was signed between Jerusalem, Cairo and Amman.
“We are all excited and look forward to more historic flights that will take us to other capital cities in the region, advancing us all to a more prosperous future,” Becker said.
“Wishing us all salaam, peace and shalom,” he concluded, using the Arabic, English, and Hebrew words.
Since 2018, Saudi Arabia has allowed Air India flights to Israel to use its airspace, but not Israeli airlines, which have to take a long detour via the Red Sea.
Citing unnamed sources, Channel 12 said Saudi Arabia had authorized the use of its airspace after receiving a request from Washington and only agreed to do so because a high-level American delegation is aboard the plane. Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have formal ties, but are believed to cooperate closely covertly.
The flight number, LY971, was a nod to the UAE’s international calling code. A return flight to Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv on Tuesday will be numbered LY972, Israel’s international calling code.
El Al painted a peace logo in Arabic, English and Hebrew on flight 971.
The flight was commissioned and paid for by Israel but organized by the US in coordination with the Israeli government.
During the visit to Abu Dhabi, the joint US and Israeli delegation will take part in “working meetings” of Israeli-UAE teams “on a range of issues ahead of the signing of cooperation agreements in the civil and economic spheres,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement.
Upon landing in Abu Dhabi’s presidential terminal, an official reception was set to be held at the airport. UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash will likely greet the arrivals, officials said.
Israel and the UAE announced on August 13 that they were establishing full diplomatic relations, in a US-brokered deal that required Israel to suspend its plan to annex parts of the West Bank.
The UAE is just the third Arab country to agree to establish official relations with Israel, after Egypt and Jordan. Israeli and American officials have expressed hope that other Gulf Arab countries will soon follow suit, with relations based on mutual commercial and security interests, and their shared enmity toward Iran.
Paving the way for the visit, the president of the UAE on Saturday issued a decree abolishing a 48-year-old law that had boycotted Israel, thereby allowing trade and financial agreements between the two nations.