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Saudis okay Israeli use of airspace on way to UAE, hours before maiden flight

Decision comes after Jerusalem reportedly asked US to press Riyadh on the matter; move reportedly only good for four days and does not cover Israeli flights to other destinations

Illustrative: An Israir flight taking off from Ben Gurion International Airport, Tel Aviv. September 3, 2015. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Illustrative: An Israir flight taking off from Ben Gurion International Airport, Tel Aviv. September 3, 2015. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Saudi Arabia reportedly granted permission for Israeli airlines to use its airspace on Monday, just hours before the first Israeli flight to the United Arab Emirates was set to take off, following a flurry of a diplomatic activity including reported US in.

Israir is scheduled to fly the first ever commercial flight by an Israeli airline to Dubai on Tuesday morning, a major milestone in burgeoning ties between Israel and its new Gulf allies.

However, the flight was reportedly in danger of being canceled before Saudi Arabia granted long-sought overflight permission Monday evening, according to Hebrew media reports.

Many passengers seeking to be among the first Israelis to visit the UAE as tourists had not known until the last moment whether their trip would be able to go ahead.

Without traversing Saudi airspace, flights to the UAE would be significantly lengthened, from three hours to over eight hours, making them unsustainable, and Israir was reportedly mulling canceling the groundbreaking trip.

According to Channel 12 news, the permission from Riyadh is only good for the next four days and only covers flights to Dubai, a significantly more paltry concession than what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had touted in early September as a “huge breakthrough” that would “open up the East.”

It was not immediately clear if the permission extended to national carrier El Al, which is also set to launch regular flights to the UAE next month.

An Israeli official familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel that there was a “green light” in principle, but the formalities had not yet been sorted out.

There was no confirmation from Riyadh.

Israeli officials had reached out to Jared Kushner, US President Donald Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law who is set to travel to Saudi Arabia this week, to press Riyadh on the matter, the Ynet news site reported, quoting an unnamed official familiar with the matter.

Kushner’s visit is an apparent last-ditch effort to broker a normalization deal between the kingdom and Israel. He will meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Neom — the Red Sea city where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week allegedly held a secret rendezvous with the prince, alongside US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

It was the first known visit to Saudi Arabia by an Israeli leader, but the talks on Iran and possible normalization reportedly yielded no substantial progress.

The Trump administration has hoped Saudi Arabia would join the UAE and Bahrain in recognizing Israel and forging diplomatic ties, a move seen as increasingly distant in the wake of Joe Biden’s election as US president. But Saudi leaders have hitherto indicated that Israeli-Palestinian peace will have to come first.

An Israeli passenger from a flydubai flight from Tel Aviv waves her Israeli passport on arrival at Dubai International Airport in the United Arab Emirates, November 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)

Riyadh announced in early September that it had “approved the request received from the General Civil Aviation Authority in the United Arab Emirates, which includes the desire to allow flights coming to and departing from the United Arab Emirates to all countries to pass through the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s airspace,” according to the state-run Saudi Press Agency.

The decision was seen as a nod toward normalization with Israel, after years of lobbying Riyadh to allow Israeli overflights. It came days after an El Al plane carrying Israeli and US dignitaries to the UAE was allowed to cross Saudi airspace.

Being able to fly over Saudi Arabia would significantly shrink flight times to India, China and other countries in the Far East where Israel is seeking to boost trade ties.

UAE carriers have already launched flights to Israel. Last Thursday, Netanyahu welcomed the first commercial flydubai flight to the Jewish state at Ben Gurion Airport, which marked the launch of its Tel Aviv-Dubai route.

“This is a moment of history because it is the first commercial flight between Dubai and Israel,” he said shortly after flight number FZ1163 had landed in Tel Aviv.

“There will be many more, going both directions. But you can only be first once,” he said at a welcoming ceremony in the arrival hall. “And this is a pivotal moment, because we’re changing history. It’s not that we’re marching forward, we’re flying, with breakneck speed, into a new era that is now clearly changing the Middle East.”

He added: “For me, it’s the realization of a dream.”

The same plane later in the day made its way back to Dubai, with some 200 Israelis on board.

The Emirati state-owned budget airliner is offering twice-daily flights between the two cities.

Earlier this month, Israel’s cabinet ratified a mutual visa exemption agreement with the UAE — the Jewish state’s first-ever such agreement with an Arab country. The agreement is expected to enter into force next month.

Agencies and Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.

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