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Saudi Arabia opens airspace to all carriers, in first fruits of budding Israel deal

Announcement comes hours before Biden set to fly to Jeddah to announce successful brokering of deal that will also see Egyptian islands transferred to Saudis

A man stands under American and Saudi Arabian flags prior to a visit by US President Joe Biden, at a square in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, July 14, 2022. (AP/Amr Nabil)
A man stands under American and Saudi Arabian flags prior to a visit by US President Joe Biden, at a square in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, July 14, 2022. (AP/Amr Nabil)

Saudi Arabia opened its airspace to Israeli aircraft early Friday, as the first signs of a nascent normalization process between Jerusalem and Riyadh appeared to take shape.

With US President Joe Biden set to fly to Jeddah from Israel later in the day, Saudi Arabia’s civil aviation authority said in a tweeted statement that it was announcing “the decision to open the Kingdom’s airspace for all air carriers that meet the requirements of the authority for overflying.”

The statement did not mention Israel, but Biden is expected to announce from Jeddah the successful brokering of a complicated regional deal that will see Saudi Arabia take steps toward normalization with Israel while taking possession of two islands from Egypt.

The normalization measures include Saudi Arabia opening its airspace to Israeli flights to the Far East in addition to rolling out direct flights between Israel and Saudi Arabia for Muslim pilgrims, a Middle East diplomat said late Thursday, confirming a deal has been clinched.

“This decision is the result of the President’s persistent and principled diplomacy with Saudi Arabia over many months, culminating in his visit today,” US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement from the White House shortly after the announcement.

He said Biden, who will land in Saudi Arabia for a controversial visit later Friday, “will have more to say on this breakthrough later today.”

Saudi Arabia only began allowing Israeli airlines to fly over its territory in a special air corridor for flights to and from the UAE and Bahrain after the Abraham Accords were signed. The change means flights to and from India, Thailand, China, and other locations in the east can cut over the Saudi peninsula, saving hours of flight time.

The US has been seeking to finalize the transfer of the Tiran and Sanafir Red Sea islands from Cairo to Riyadh in time for Biden’s visit to Jeddah, where he will participate in the GCC+3 summit and hold a bilateral meeting with Saudi officials.

President Joe Biden walk down the steps of Air Force One upon his arrival at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv, Israel Wednesday, July 13, 2022. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

Israel handed over control of the two islands to Egypt as part of their 1979 peace agreement, but the sides agreed to demilitarize the islands and to allow the presence of a multinational observer force to remain.

Israel had been seeking similar assurances from Saudi Arabia in order to sign off on the deal, but Riyadh had been hesitant to put the commitment in writing, the diplomat said last week.

But late Thursday, high-ranking officials who wished to remain anonymous said Israel had “no objection” to Egypt handing over the islands to Saudi Arabia.

The deal had been legally complex to broker because the countries do not maintain official ties and therefore are working through conduits.

At a press conference with Prime Minister Yair Lapid earlier Thursday, Biden said he was “optimistic” about the prospects of being able to announce Saudi overflights when he arrives in Jeddah Friday.

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.”

This photo taken on January 14, 2014, through the window of an airplane, shows the Red Sea’s Tiran (foreground) and the Sanafir (background) islands in the Strait of Tiran between Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Saudi Arabia. (Stringer/AFP)

Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have official diplomatic relations, but covert ties have warmed in recent years as Riyadh and its de facto 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.

The Saudi civil aviation authority said the decision to open up its airspace was made “to complement the Kingdom’s efforts aimed at consolidating the Kingdom’s position as a global hub connecting three continents.”

AFP contributed to this report. 

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