On Thursday, a flight coming from Hong Kong bound for Tel Aviv was allowed to cross over Saudi Arabian airspace en route to Israel. Historically, the kingdom has forbidden any planes to or from Israel from flying over. The move signals a warming of relations between the two nations.
The new flight path availability will cut travel times for many overseas visitors to Israel. The inaugural flight over Saudi Arabia was flown by Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airways. It originated in Hong Kong, flew over the United Arab Emirates and the Persian Gulf, then crossed over the Saudi coastline, into Jordan, and entered Israel near the Dead Sea.
El Al, Israel’s national airline, said they expect to receive the green light to fly over Saudi airspace by the end of the week. Direct flights from Israel to Mecca are also being considered for Israeli Arabs making the annual pilgrimage. Currently, Israeli Arabs have to catch a bus into Jordan and then board a plane to Mecca.
Saudi Arabia officials said their airspace was opened to all airlines “that meet the requirements of the Authority for overflying.”
After the Abraham Accords, when Israel established diplomatic relations with Bahrain and the UAE, Saudi Arabia agreed to let Israeli planes fly over, but only for trips to and from the two Gulf states. This new move now allows flights from the east—China, India, Thailand, and elsewhere—to take the shortcut over the kingdom, shaving off two to three hours of flight time on their way to Tel Aviv.
Saudi Arabia and Israel still do not have official diplomatic ties, but the relations between the two counties have secretly developed in the last couple of years. There are two main factors pushing them in this direction.
- A common goal of restraining Iran’s growing influence in the region has helped forge a partnership behind the scenes between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
- A realization that the Palestinian Authority does not genuinely want peace with Israel and is not willing to make the needed sacrifices. Arab nations are deciding to no longer allow the Palestinian issue to hold back progress and cooperation between Israel and her Arab neighbors.
You might wonder, why doesn’t Saudi Arabia just move forward with full diplomatic relations? My view is that the Islamic fundamentalist state has spent so many years demonizing Israel because of the Palestinian issue that they fear that the blowback would be too great. So, they are taking things little by little.
The kingdom agreed to open up its airspace after US President Joe Biden’s visit last month. The US and Israel both hailed the easing of airspace as a good sign for future ties.
However, Saudi Arabia squelched that notion, stating that the decision to allow the overfly had “nothing to do with diplomatic ties with Israel” and is “not in any way precursor to any further steps” toward normalization.