WASHINGTON — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters on Monday that Saudi Arabia has given Air India approval to fly through its airspace on flights between Israel and India.
The agreement would shorten the flight path by some two hours and mark a significant achievement as Jerusalem attempts to upgrade its relationship with Riyadh.
“Air India signed an agreement today to fly to Israel over Saudi Arabia,” the Israeli premier said during a briefing at the Blair House in Washington, DC, emphasizing that the flight to and from Mumbai would take the same length of time as flights between London and Tel Aviv, some five and a half hours.
Air India also flies from Tel Aviv to Bangkok.
There was no immediate confirmation of the agreement from Saudi Arabia or Air India. Saudi officials swiftly denied okaying an agreement in February after Indian authorities said they had applied for permission to overfly the country on trips to and from Israel.
Currently, El Al is the only airline offering direct flights from Israel to India, with a Tel Aviv-Mumbai route. In order to avoid Saudi Arabia, which has hitherto forbidden flights to and from Israel over its airspace, the plane must detour over the Red Sea and around the Arabian peninsula, adding over two hours to the journey.
The Indian airline’s ability to fly over Saudi Arabia would substantially reduce the flight times, but Netanyahu stressed the planes would not be able to fly over Iran, Iraq and Pakistan — other countries with which Israel has no diplomatic ties.
The prime minister, who visited India in January, acknowledged the agreement could hurt El Al.
Reuters reported last week that El Al was seeking help from the international community to fly through Saudi airspace as well.
Israel does not have diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia, but it has been a known secret that the two nations have been working covertly on their shared security concerns regarding Iran in the wake of the 2015 nuclear accord, which both governments’ strongly opposed.
Netanyahu told business leaders while in India in January that an “efficient and direct route” between the countries was an important goal.