Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Saturday that he was deterred from flying to the United Arab Emirates through Saudi airspace last week because of the threat of missile fire from Iranian proxies in Yemen.
Netanyahu had called off a visit to the Emirates on Thursday over a spat with neighboring Jordan, which had temporarily closed its airspace to the prime minister’s flight.
But rather than bypass Jordanian airspace and take a more southerly route through Saudi skies, Netanyahu told Israel’s Channel 13, “there were also problems a week ago in the skies of Saudi Arabia,” referring to recent missile attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebels.
Netanyahu did not elaborate, nor did he say there were concrete plans to target his plane by the Iran-backed Houthis.
The Houthis, who control the capital and much of the country’s north, have escalated their cross-border attacks on critical Saudi infrastructure in recent weeks, crashing bomb-laden drones and missiles into the kingdom’s Patriot missile batteries and revealing gaps in its defenses.
Last week, missiles and drones hit one of the world’s largest oil shipping ports and halted air traffic toward the international airport in the port city of Jiddah. While Houthi-claimed attacks on Saudi Arabia rarely cause substantial damage, such strikes have roiled the world economy and raise the risk of a disruption in global oil supplies.
Netanyahu was slated to make the first official visit by an Israeli leader to the United Arab Emirates, half a year after the countries established formal relations. He had hoped to use the audience with the UAE’s crown prince to boost his reelection campaign less than two weeks before the March 23 Knesset elections.
The Prime Minister’s Office said it had difficulties coordinating the flight over Jordanian airspace after Jordan’s Crown Prince Hussein canceled a visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, a sensitive holy site under Jordanian custodianship, due to disagreements over security arrangements.
Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman al-Safadi confirmed on Friday that Jordan held up granting Netanyahu overflight permission in retaliation for the canceled visit.
Safadi accused Israel of violating an agreement on the arrangements for the visit, while Israel has said Hussein arrived with heavier security than promised.
On Saturday, Netanyahu insisted that relations between the two countries were positive, saying that “Jordan needs good relations with us no less than we need good relations with Jordan.”
The diplomatic spat underscored Jordanian frustrations with Netanyahu and tensions between the two neighbors that have simmered for years.
Netanyahu had been scheduled to meet UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed in his visit to the Emirates.
Reports had also suggested he may have also been hoping to meet Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and/or Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok during the trip.
The trip to the UAE been planned for several months but postponed on numerous occasions, most recently in February. Netanyahu had originally been set to make the trip in November, then December, and then in January and February, but the pandemic, scheduling issues, and internal political crises led to repeated delays.