Saudi Arabia opens airspace to ‘all airlines’ in gesture to Israel

RIYADH — Saudi Arabia announced today (July 15) that it will lift restrictions on “all airlines” using its airspace, an apparent gesture of openness to Israel ahead of US President Joe Biden’s arrival.

Saudi and US flags line King Abdulaziz Road in the Saudi Red Sea port city of Jeddah yesterday (July 14) ahead of a visit by US President Joe Biden. Photo: Amer Hilabi/AFP

The US leader hailed the “historic” decision, Riyadh’s latest conciliatory move towards the Jewish state, which it has rejected despite intensive Israeli efforts to establish ties with Arab countries.

The Saudi Civil Aviation Authority “announces the decision to open the Kingdom’s airspace to all air carriers that meet the authority’s overfly requirements,” the statement said on Twitter.

The decision was made “to complement the Kingdom’s efforts aimed at solidifying the Kingdom’s position as a global hub connecting three continents.”

“This decision comes as a result of the President’s persistent and principled diplomacy with Saudi Arabia over many months, culminating in his visit today,” US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said in the statement, adding that Biden ” praises”.

He said the US President, who will land later today as part of a trip to the Middle East on a controversial visit to Saudi Arabia, “will have more to say about this breakthrough today.”

Ahead of Biden’s arrival in Israel to begin his Middle East tour on Wednesday, Washington had hinted that more Arab nations could take steps to pursue ties with Israel, spurring speculation as to whether Riyadh would change its long-held position of not establishing an official bilateral link relations until the conflict with the Palestinians is resolved.

The kingdom showed no opposition when its regional ally, the United Arab Emirates, established diplomatic ties with Israel in 2020, followed by Bahrain and Morocco under the US-brokered Abraham Accords.

But analysts have stressed that any immediate gains are likely to be incremental and that Riyadh is unlikely to agree to any formal commitments — not during Biden’s visit or while King Salman, 86, is still in power.

Biden will travel to the Saudi city of Jeddah on the Red Sea coast this afternoon, despite an earlier vow to treat the kingdom as a “pariah” over the 2018 assassination and dismemberment of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

He is said to be flying straight from the Jewish state to Saudi Arabia – making him the first US president to fly from there to an Arab nation that does not recognize him.

In 2017, his predecessor Donald Trump did the opposite.

A big change

Shortly after announcing the Abraham Accords in 2020, Saudi Arabia allowed an Israeli plane to fly over en route to Abu Dhabi and announced UAE flights to “all countries” could overfly the kingdom.

Today’s announcement effectively lifts overflight restrictions on aircraft traveling to and from Israel.

Israel has been pushing for overflight rights to shorten connections to destinations in Asia.

The Israeli authorities also want Muslim pilgrims from Israel to be able to travel directly to Saudi Arabia.

They currently have to make costly stopovers in third countries.

Under the de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom Biden is scheduled to meet today, there has been “a major shift in Saudi thinking” regarding Israel, said Dan Shapiro, Washington’s former ambassador to Israel.

Prince Mohammed “and to some extent even the king himself have indicated that they are positive about normalization with Israel,” said Shapiro, now with the Atlantic Council.

“They supported the Abraham Accords. Your own normalization may take time and be phased in, but it seems almost inevitable that it will happen.”

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