On Wednesday (Sept 2), Saudi Arabia approved a United Arab Emirates request to use the kingdom’s airspace “for all flights coming to the United Arab Emirates and leaving to all countries,” a consequential, if oblique outreach to Israel.
The short statement by the state-run Saudi Press Agency, citing an unidentified official at the aviation authority, was quickly followed by a tweet from the foreign minister.
Two days earlier, Saudi Arabia allowed Israel’s flagship carrier, El Al Israel Airlines Ltd, to fly over its territory for the first time to hold a first round of peace talks with the UAE in Abu Dhabi.
The opening of Saudi skies, closed because the countries have never had diplomatic relations, reflects the growing willingness by Gulf Arab states to publicly recognise a rapprochement with Israel that’s rooted in a common animosity toward Iran.
Developments have been moving quickly since Israel and the UAE announced last month that they would normalise ties, with Emirati and Israeli banks, airlines and other businesses eager to take advantage of the opportunity to join forces.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed the decision. “These are the benefits of a peace that is genuine,” he said.
The political benefits come with a practical boon to airlines and travellers. Flights will no longer have to go down the Red Sea and up the Gulf of Aden to avoid Saudi airspace, which tacked hours and big expenses onto long-haul flights.
Two years ago, Saudi Arabia had allowed Air India to fly directly to and from Israel, but permission was withheld from Israeli airlines, at a great disadvantage to them.
The lifting of these restrictions will also benefit other airlines, such as Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways, which said Tuesday that it started selling tickets to Israeli passengers in the lead-up to normal commercial flights between the UAE and Israel.
The Palestinians have watched with dismay as Arab nations once hostile to Israel have opened to cooperation.
If the Palestinian statehood cause once was a wedge between them, then the intensity of Arab opposition to Israel has waned as shifts in the regional landscape create new shared interests.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said his country’s stance on the Palestinian cause is unwavering and won’t change with the new decision on flights to and from the UAE.
Riyadh has said it remains committed to the Middle East peace initiative the country put forward in 2002, proposing normalised relations only after Israel meets several conditions, including a withdrawal from territories occupied in the 1967 war and claimed by the Palestinians for a future state.