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In boon for Israel, Saudi Arabia gives permanent overfly rights to and from UAE

Netanyahu hails ‘another tremendous breakthrough,’ promises new policy will shorten and cheapen flights and open Israel up to the Far East

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

A screen showing the route of El Al Flight 972 from Abu Dhabi to Tel Aviv, crossing over Saudi Arabia, September 1, 2020 (Raphael Ahren/TOI)
A screen showing the route of El Al Flight 972 from Abu Dhabi to Tel Aviv, crossing over Saudi Arabia, September 1, 2020 (Raphael Ahren/TOI)

In another breakthrough for Israel’s rapprochement with the Arab Gulf, and a major boon for Israeli air travel, Saudi Arabia on Wednesday announced that it will henceforth allow flights from “all countries” to cross over its airspace on flights to or from the United Arab Emirates.

Israeli leaders indicated they understood this to mean that Israeli flights can head to and from the Far East via Saudi Arabia and UAE, drastically reducing travel time.

The dramatic Saudi announcement, which followed Monday’s first-ever Israeli nonstop flight to Abu Dhabi — which for the first time crossed through Saudi airspace — was announced by the state-owned Saudi Press Agency, or SPA. The El Al flight from Abu Dhabi to Tel Aviv on Tuesday was also allowed to overfly Saudi Arabia, although, unlike Monday’s flight, no American delegation was on board.

“An official source at the General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA) has stated that the Authority approved the request received from the General Civil Aviation Authority in the United Arab Emirates, which includes the desire to allow flights coming to and departing from the United Arab Emirates to all countries to pass through the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s airspace,” the SPA said.

The statement made no mention of the kingdom’s rival, Iran, nor Qatar, which Saudi Arabia is currently boycotting. Flights between those countries to the UAE would, in theory, not need to use the kingdom’s airspace.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed the announcement as a “huge breakthrough” that will help the Israeli economy and reduce airfares.

“For years, I have been working to open the skies between Israel and the East. It was spectacular news two-and-a-half years ago when Air India received approval to fly directly to Israel,” he said in a filmed statement, standing near a huge map.

“Now there is another tremendous breakthrough: Israeli planes and those from all countries will be able to fly directly from Israel to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and back. Flights will be cheaper and shorter, and it will lead to robust tourism and develop our economy.”

The new Saudi policy “will open up the East,” the prime minister went on.

“When you fly to Thailand or anywhere else in Asia, it will save time and money. This is amazing news for you, the citizens of Israel. These are the benefits of a peace that is genuine,” he said.

Netanyahu thanked Jared Kushner, a senior adviser to US President Donald Trump, and the UAE’s de facto ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed for their ” important contribution” in bringing about the new Saudi policy.

Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan stressed on Twitter that the opening of Saudi airspace to flights between Israel and the UAE does not change “the Kingdom’s firm and established positions toward the Palestinian cause and the Palestinian people.”

He added that Riyadh “appreciates all efforts aimed at achieving a just and lasting peace in accordance with the Arab Peace Initiative” a plan that envisions full normalization between Israel and the Arab world in return for Israel’s withdrawal to the 1967 lines and the creation of a Palestinian state.

Kushner had been aboard Monday’s historic flight from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi, from where he went on to Manama and Riyadh to advocate for normalization with Israel. However, both countries told him that they are not yet ready to follow the UAE in establishing diplomatic relations with Israel.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s senior adviser Jared Kushner, center, stands with U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien while speaking to journalists during a flight on an Israeli El Al plane to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Monday, Aug. 31, 2020. The plane landed in Abu Dhabi after flying in from Israel in the first-ever direct commercial passenger flight to the United Arab Emirates. (Nir Elias/Pool Photo via AP)

“The prospects for the peace process in the region and the need to resume negotiations between the Palestinian and Israeli sides to achieve a just and lasting peace were also discussed,” the Saudi Press Agency said after Kushner’s meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Marc Schneier, a New York-based rabbi who has close ties to several Gulf states and has long advocated for normalization with Israel, hailed the new Saudi policy but stressed that Riyadh remains devoted to the Palestinian cause.

“Today’s announcement is historic and it also signals the beginning of the warming of relations between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Israel,” he told The Times of Israel. “While they are still deeply committed the Palestinian people, this first step is a big one and should be celebrated.”

“We are hopeful the the media reports are correct, which will allow EL AL to overfly Saudi Arabian airspace. We need to learn how this can be implemented and authorized formally,” Stanley Morais, acting director for international affairs at El Al, told The Times of Israel.

On Monday, El Al Flight 971 took a joint US-Israel delegation to Abu Dhabi for talks with Emirati officials to lay the groundwork for the agreement between Israel and the UAE ahead of a peace accord to be signed in the coming weeks.

A wing tip with the Star of David is visible through the window of an Israeli El Al airliner just before the plane lands in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Monday, Aug. 31, 2020. (Nir Elias/Pool Photo via AP)

Minutes before takeoff, Captain Tal Becker announced what many expected would be the case: the Boeing 737-900 would cross over Saudi Arabia.

“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,” he said, first in English and then in Hebrew.

“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.”

Agencies contributed to this report.

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