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In first, Israeli plane flies over Saudi airspace to non-Gulf destination

Arkia flight IZ611 to Seychelles flies along Saudi’s Red Sea shores, reducing travel time by 20 minutes; more substantial reductions to routes will require use of Oman’s airspace

Tobias (Toby) Siegal is a breaking news editor and contributor to The Times of Israel.

An Arkia Airlines plane at Ben Gurion Airport. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)
An Arkia Airlines plane at Ben Gurion Airport. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

The first-ever Israeli commercial flight over Saudi airspace to a non-Gulf destination departed after midnight on Tuesday, with the new route shortening the duration of the flight by 20 minutes.

Arkia Airlines flight IZ611 departed Ben Gurion Airport after 1:15 a.m. and was scheduled to land in the Republic of Seychelles off the coast of East Africa six hours later.

In a statement ahead of the flight, Arkia’s chief pilot Din Gal said, “Tonight, an Arkia plane will become the first Israeli licensed plane to fly over Saudi Arabia — not to Dubai, but to the Seychelles. The route will go through Jordan in the area of the Dead Sea and turn left to Petra, continuing along Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea shores. From there, it will continue on its regular route through Eritrea…We soon hope to see shorter flights to India and Sri Lanka.”

Since the 2020 Abraham Accords normalization agreements, Saudi Arabia has allowed Israeli airlines to use its airspace for flights to and from the UAE and Bahrain. But that authorization was not extended to flights departing and arriving at other destinations until last month as part of a multilateral agreement to transfer control of a pair of Red Sea islands from Egypt to Saudi Arabia that was brokered by the Biden administration.

That deal was reached during US President Joe Biden’s trip to the Mideast, with Washington and Jerusalem framing the Saudi decision to open its airspace to all commercial flights as a first step toward normalization with Israel, given that no other country had been barred from such flyovers until then.

But Riyadh sought to pour cold water over the idea, insisting that its decision had nothing to do with Israel, had more to do with its geopolitical goals and was not a precursor to normalizing ties with Jerusalem.

Israeli and US officials are unconvinced by the public Saudi position and insist that Riyadh is simply trying to placate a domestic audience wary of warming ties with the Jewish state.

Still, Jerusalem expected Oman to follow suit, which would open up entirely new routes for destinations in the far east, such as India and Thailand — popular vacation spots for Israelis. Using Saudi and Omani airspace to reach those destinations would reduce travel time by two to four hours and would potentially reduce ticket prices as well, given that airlines would save money on fuel.

But the Omani authorization has yet to arrive, with Hebrew media reporting that Muscat is under pressure from neighboring Iran not to grant it.

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