WASHINGTON DC, USA: Saudi Arabia agreed to let Israeli airliners cross its airspace en route to the United Arab Emirates after talks between Saudi officials and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner.
Kushner and Middle East envoys Avi Berkowitz and Brian Hook raised the issue shortly after they arrived in Saudi Arabia for talks. “We were able to reconcile the issue,” an official from the administration of United States President Donald Trump told Reuters on Monday.
The agreement was signed just hours before Israel’s first commercial flight to the UAE was planned on Tuesday morning. The Israir flight was at risk of being cancelled with no overflight agreement.
The direct flights are an offshoot of normalisation deals Israel reached this year with the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan.
The UAE has already reaped benefits from normalisation, including the White House pushing forward with arms sales, including an advanced fighter jet, to the Gulf country.
The Saudi Press Agency said the country’s civil aviation authority had granted Abu Dhabi’s request to allow airliners “coming from and departing to all countries” and bound for or leaving one of the UAE’s airports, to fly over Saudi Arabia, which does not officially recognize Israel. This signals Riyadh’s acquiescence for a breakthrough US-brokered deal by the United Arab Emirates to normalise relations with Israel.
Netanyahu welcomed the move, calling it “the fruits of a real peace.” In a video statement, he added that flying over Saudi airspace will help develop tourism, lower the costs of flights and cut travel time to East Asia.
Despite the Israeli prime minister’s statement, it is still unclear whether the Saudi decision would also apply to flights operated by Israeli airlines between Tel Aviv and East Asian destinations. Israeli planes currently have to fly south of the Arabian Peninsula, making the trip about three hours long.
Saudi Arabia mostly bans flights to and from Israel from using its airspace, though since 2018 it has permitted Air India to fly over the country to Tel Aviv.
Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud said the kingdom’s decision to allow flights doesn’t change its position on the Palestinian issue. “The kingdom appreciates all efforts towards a lasting, just peace, in accordance with the Arab Peace Initiative,” he added in a tweet.
Palestinians have held public protests and burned the UAE flag in anger.
Also on Wednesday, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi spoke with Netanyahu over the phone, stressing Cairo’s support for “any effort towards regional peace that would maintain the Palestinian people’s legitimate rights.”
Sissi called on Netanyahu to avoid any unilateral moves, and underlined the “great importance” of keeping the calm in the fighting between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
On Monday, El Al flight LY971 from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi, carrying an Israeli delegation on its way to hold meetings to finalise the normalisation agreement with the United Arab Emirates, made the first publicly acknowledged entry of an Israeli plane into Saudi airspace.