Saudi Arabia is said to be preparing to allow all commercial flights to and from Israel to overfly its airspace, and also to permit direct charter flights to and from Israel for Muslims participating in the annual hajj pilgrimage in Mecca, the holiest city in Islam.
Citing “people familiar with the matter, a CNN report on Wednesday said Riyadh was preparing to make the announcement this week, as US President Joe Biden visits the region on a much-anticipated official state trip that will include a direct flight from Israel to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on Friday.
Riyadh, CNN said, is expected to announce “that it will allow all commercial flights to and from Israel to use its airspace and allow Israel’s Muslim minority to take charter flights directly to Saudi Arabia to participate in the Hajj.”
In an opinion article ahead of the trip, Biden said the direct travel was a “small symbol” of the warming ties between Israel and the Arab world and “steps toward normalization.”
Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have official diplomatic relations, but covert ties have warmed in recent years as Riyahd and its de factor ruler, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, have reportedly come to see Israel as a strategic partner in the battle against Iranian influence in the region.
The kingdom declined to sign onto the Washington-brokered Abraham Accords in 2020 as the US and Israel had hoped, but Riyadh is believed to have given the go-ahead to Bahrain, where it retains decisive influence, to join the normalization agreement with Israel alongside the United Arab Emirates and Morocco.
Saudi Arabia did begin allowing Israeli airlines to fly over its territory in a special air corridor for flights to and from the UAE and Bahrain, after the accords were signed. But Israel has yet to receive such access for flights to and from India, Thailand and China, for example.
Should Riyadh announced its approval for use of its airspace, travel to and from those countries will be significantly shorter journeys.
Last week, Israel’s Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej filed an official request with Saudi authorities to allow direct travel for Israeli Muslim pilgrims setting off on the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.
The hajj is a once-in-a-lifetime duty for all Muslims physically and financially able to make the journey, which takes them along a path believed traversed by the Prophet Muhammad some 1,400 years ago.
Currently, Saudi Arabia accepts Muslim pilgrims arriving from Israel to Mecca but requires them to travel through a third country, which Frej said could cost up to $11,500 for a week-long trip. Meanwhile, pilgrims from neighboring Arab countries pay about half that amount.
The CNN report came amid swirling speculation about a potential normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia during the Biden visit.
According to CNN, Biden administration officials have said that full normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia will likely not take place in the near future, but claimed that cooperation between the countries was expanding.
“Our job is to go deeper with the countries that have signed up and to go wider if we can,” CNN cited one US official as saying.
Biden touched down in Israel on Wednesday for the first of his two-day visit to the country, which included a welcoming ceremony at Ben-Gurion International Airport in which the president said the ties between “the Israeli people and the American people is bone deep.”
Biden will spend 48 hours in Israel and the West Bank with an itinerary that includes bilateral meetings with Israeli leaders, tours of Israeli security systems and the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum, attendance at the opening ceremony of the Maccabiah Jewish Olympics, a visit to a hospital for Palestinians in East Jerusalem and a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem.
He will then fly directly to Saudi Arabia to participate in a summit of regional Arab leaders known as the GCC+3 before returning to the US on Sunday.
It is Biden’s 10th trip to Israel. He used his remarks at the welcoming ceremoney to fondly recall his first visit just before the Yom Kippur War in 1973 when Golda Meir was premier and former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was one of her aides.
“I realized that I had the great honor to be part of the great history of this country,” he said, before reiterating another go-to Israel line of his. “I’ll say it again, you need not be a Jew to be a Zionist.”
Biden notably made no mention of Iran in his remarks, though he did say that advancing Israel’s integration into the region would be a theme of the trip.
Tobias Siegal and Lazar Berman contributed to this report.