In world first, Air India crosses Saudi airspace to Israel
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In world first, Air India crosses Saudi airspace to Israel

First flight lands at Ben Gurion Thursday night, in sign of warming relations with Arab nations that were once avowed enemies

A Boeing 787 flight number AI139 of Indian national carrier Air India, from New Delhi, performs maneuvers on the tarmac at Ben Gurion International Airport on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, on March 22, 2018 after using Saudi airspace for the first time. (AFP PHOTO/JACK GUEZ)
A Boeing 787 flight number AI139 of Indian national carrier Air India, from New Delhi, performs maneuvers on the tarmac at Ben Gurion International Airport on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, on March 22, 2018 after using Saudi airspace for the first time. (AFP PHOTO/JACK GUEZ)

AFP — Air India launched on Thursday the first scheduled service to Israel to be allowed to cross Saudi airspace, a sign of a behind-the-scenes improvement in ties between the Arab kingdom and the Jewish state.

The inaugural flight AI 139 took off from New Delhi at 12:30 p.m. GMT and landed in Tel Aviv at 8:15 p.m. GMT, or 10:15 p.m. local time, about 30 minutes after its scheduled arrival time.

“This is a historic moment,” Israeli Transport Minister Yisrael Katz told AFP on the tarmac as the Boeing Dreamliner rolled to a halt.

“It is the first time that there is an official connection between the state of Israel and Saudi Arabia,” he said in Hebrew.

“We will be flying non-stop from New Delhi to Tel Aviv from March 22 over Saudi airspace,” Air India spokesman Praveen Bhatnagar told AFP ahead of the flight.

There will now be three flights weekly in each direction, ending a decades-long Saudi ban on the use of its airspace for commercial flights to and from Israel.

Israel’s national carrier El Al currently operates an India service to Mumbai that takes a detour over the Red Sea to avoid flying over Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Advertisement in India for new Air India service to Israel, March 2018 (Havas Media, via GPO)

Saudi Arabia and Israel have no official diplomatic relations, like much of the Arab world. Egypt and Jordan are the only two Arab countries with peace treaties with Israel.

The flight approval comes after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described relations with the Arab world as the “best ever,” with common concerns over Iran drawing them closer together.

Leaders of Arab countries have not publicly made similar comments, though that does not necessarily mean they dispute Netanyahu’s claim.

They face sensitivities within their own countries, where the Jewish state is often viewed with intense hostility.

Israeli analyst Jonathan Spyer said that the Saudi concession showed that positive signals were being sent despite the lack of an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty, long seen as a prerequisite for relations between the Jewish state and the Arab world.

“I think that what this shows is even in the absence of that you can have small gestures that are of real meaning,” Spyer, director of Israel’s Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs, told AFP.

“That’s what I think that this Saudi decision to allow the overflights consists of. It’s small but significant,” he said.

‘General rebranding’

During a May 2017 Middle East tour, US President Donald Trump flew from Riyadh to Tel Aviv on Air Force One in what is believed to have been among the few direct flights from Saudi Arabia to Israel.

Trump says he is working on a plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Spyer said that his administration appears to see Riyadh as “crucial for much of what they want to do on the Israeli-Palestinian track.”

Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia and Israel have a common enemy in Shiite-dominated Iran, with both seeking to limit what they view as the Islamic republic’s expanding influence in the Middle East.

Trump’s first presidential foreign trip took in Riyadh and Israel, while his son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner has reportedly formed a bond with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s de facto political leader, is pursuing economic and social reforms long sought by the West.

The self-styled modernizer, who has sought to project a liberal image of Saudi Arabia to investors, has, however, also consolidated power to a level unseen by previous rulers.

The relaxation of the overflight ban, said Spyer, is part of “warming relations behind the scenes” with Israel.

“Presumably it fits in also with the more general rebranding that Mohammed Bin Salman is trying to achieve for the Saudis.”

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