Saudi Arabia is expected to permit direct flights from Tel Aviv to Mecca and to open up more of its airspace to Israeli planes. The formal announcement of the new airspace policy is expected to take place during U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit to the Gulf kingdom, after he flies directly to Saudi Arabia from Israel this Friday. The direct flight serves as a “small symbol of the budding relations” between the two countries.
Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid noted, “After a long road of intense and covert diplomacy with Saudi Arabia and the United States, today we have good news. The Saudi aviation authorities have announced that they will be opening Saudi airspace to Israeli airlines.” “This decision was preceded by the signing of the ‘Jerusalem Declaration’, deepening America’s commitment to Israel’s security, the fight against the Iranian nuclear program and the advancing of normalization initiatives of the Abraham Accords and the Negev Summit,” Lapid continued. “I would like to thank the President of the United States, Joe Biden, for a visit that moved our entire country and for his commitment to Israel’s military and diplomatic strength. I wish him success at the Jeddah Summit. I thank the Saudi leadership for the opening of Saudi airspace. This is only the first step. We will continue working with necessary caution, for the sake of Israel’s economy, security and the good of our citizens.”
Following the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020, Saudi Arabia created a special air corridor for Israeli airlines to fly over its territory to and from the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. However, the easing of restrictions also would shorten flights from Israel to the Far East, destinations such as India, Thailand and China. U.S. officials told the media that Saudi authorities will welcome direct charter flights of Israel’s Muslim minority who want to participate in the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.
Full normalization of ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel remains out of reach, according to senior U.S. administration officials. Nevertheless, The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz presented Biden with the clandestine defense agreements Israel has with Arab countries, with which it does not have official diplomatic ties. The report noted that the U.S. has been involved in talks to establish a joint regional air-defense alliance between Israel and several Arab countries against Iran. It added that efforts to encourage such a partnership “have been hampered by the U.S. administration’s strained relationship with Saudi Arabia, which has resisted pressure from Washington to shift course on key issues, including oil production and human rights.”
Responding to a question from reporters on Thursday, the president said his trip to the Saudi kingdom serves to preserve American interests after the previous administration backed out of the region. Biden added that he has “never been quiet on human rights,” yet he did not promise that he would raise the issue of murdered Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi during his meetings in the kingdom.