Flight to Israel crosses Saudi airspace for 1st time since kingdom opened its skies

Cathay Pacific plane from Hong Kong to Tel Aviv allowed to fly over Saudi Arabia, after Kingdom authorized overflights from all carriers during Biden visit last month

Illustrative: A Cathay Pacific Airways aircraft takes off at the Hong Kong International Airport, in Hong Kong, October 21, 2020. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)
Illustrative: A Cathay Pacific Airways aircraft takes off at the Hong Kong International Airport, in Hong Kong, October 21, 2020. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

A commercial flight bound for Israel entered Saudi airspace on Thursday for the first time since Saudi Arabia opened its skies to all flights, including Israeli ones, last month.

The flight operated by Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific airline took off from Hong Kong and was set to land in Tel Aviv on Thursday morning.

A flight tracking service showed the plane flying over the United Arab Emirates and the Persian Gulf before crossing over the Saudi coastline near the city of Damman. The plane flew over northern Saudi Arabia and Jordan, and entered Israeli territory north of the Dead Sea.

Another Cathay Pacific flight from Hong Kong to Tel Aviv earlier this week took a different route, flying northwest over China, Kazakhstan and Turkey, and entering Israeli airspace from the Mediterranean Sea.

Last month, Saudi Arabia announced it had opened its airspace to all civilian overflights hours before US President Joe Biden became the first US leader to directly fly from Israel to the Kingdom.

Saudi Arabia’s statement said it had opened its airspace “for all air carriers that meet the requirements of the Authority for overflying,” meaning Israeli companies could shorten travel by crossing Saudi airspace. Before the announcement, Saudi Arabia had also barred overflights from non-Israeli companies that were traveling to or from the Jewish state.

Israeli airlines have still not flown over Saudi airspace since the announcement.

On Wednesday, the Kan public broadcaster said Israel’s national carrier El Al had received official approval from Riyadh to begin using its airspace.

In a conflicting report, Channel 13 said Wednesday that El Al and the Israeli airline Arkia were still waiting for final approval from Saudi Arabia, and were expected to receive it by the end of the week.

Israel and the US hailed Saudi Arabia’s decision to lift restrictions on overflights as a major development in ties between Jerusalem and Riyadh. Ahead of Biden’s visit to the region, Israeli officials expressed high hopes for progress toward normalization with Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia, however, contradicted that position, saying the decision had “nothing to do with diplomatic ties with Israel” and is “not in any way precursor to any further steps” toward normalization.

Saudi Arabia only began allowing Israeli airlines to fly over its territory in a special air corridor for flights to and from the UAE and Bahrain after the Abraham Accords were signed in 2020, but did not allow flights to destinations farther east.

The change means flights to and from India, Thailand, China, and other locations in the east can cut over the Saudi peninsula, saving hours of flight time.

Flights to Asia from Tel Aviv had to circumvent the Arabian Peninsula until now, adding between two to three hours of travel time.

In addition to being a boon for tourists, the decision will also benefit Israel’s Muslims wishing to participate in the hajj, as direct charter flights to Saudi Arabia will be made available annually for the pilgrims.

Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have official diplomatic relations, but covert ties have warmed in recent years as Riyadh and its de facto ruler, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, have reportedly come to see Israel as a strategic partner in the battle against Iranian influence in the region.

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 UAE and Morocco.

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