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US pushes Oman to follow Saudi Arabia in allowing Israeli flights to use airspace

Middle East diplomats say progress made in effort; Riyadh’s decision has proven largely symbolic, as flights to the Far East also need Omani airspace to cut time

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, second from left, meets Omani Foreign Minister Sayyid Badr Albusaidi, right, at the State Department on November 8, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, second from left, meets Omani Foreign Minister Sayyid Badr Albusaidi, right, at the State Department on November 8, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

The Biden administration is pushing the Omani government to follow Saudi Arabia in allowing Israeli flights to use its airspace, in a move that would significantly shorten the distance for flights to the Far East, two Middle East diplomats told The Times of Israel.

In July, Saudi Arabia announced that its airspace would be open to all commercial airliners, in a nod to Israel, which was believed to be the only country barred from flying over the Gulf kingdom. The US and Israel characterized the move as a step toward normalization between Riyadh and Jerusalem, though Saudi Arabia sought to downplay the gesture, saying it was not a precursor to any additional moves so long as there is no two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

While Saudi overflights were long sought by US and Israeli officials, the move ended up being largely symbolic, as flights to Asian countries like India and China would still require a similar authorization from Oman.

One Middle East diplomat said the Biden administration overlooked this detail in its campaign to coax Riyadh into opening its airspace to Israeli flights.

As a result, Israeli airliners have still been forced to fly south through Africa or north through Russia in order to get to the Far East, adding several hours to those flights. Non-Israeli airliners have been able to take shorter flights over Saudi Arabia though, even if they’re heading to or from the Jewish state.

The Saudi decision has shortened some flight times for Israelis vacationing in the Republic of Seychelles off the coast of East Africa — a destination that does not require Omani airspace to reach.

Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) talks with Sultan Qaboos bin Said in Oman on October 26, 2018 (Courtesy)

Upon the 2020 signing of the Abraham Accords normalization agreements between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, Saudi Arabia also authorized the use of its airspace for flights between the three countries.

But looking to put more teeth into the Saudi decision from July, Biden officials have raised opening Muscat’s airspace to Israeli flights with Omani counterparts several times in recent months, a second Middle East diplomat said.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan brought up the matter during their meetings last week with Omani Foreign Minister Sayyid Badr al-Busaidi, the diplomat said, confirming a report on the Axios news site.

“There was some progress on this front,” the diplomat said, while declining to offer a timeline for when a decision will be made by Oman.

Prospective incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, when he was premier in 2018, reportedly received a commitment from then-sultan Qaboos to open Omani airspace to Israeli airliners. However, the decision was walked back by Qaboos’s successor, Sultan Haitham bin Tariq.

Oman has been identified as a country that could be next to join the Abraham Accord, but Muscat has thus far resisted entering the pact.

Al-Busaidi said last year that Oman would only move after a two-state solution has been realized.

The White House declined a request for comment. The Omani embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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