Saudi grants airspace approval for flights to Israel

For the first time, Saudi Arabia grants permission for Air India flights headed to Israel to use its airspace.

Air India
Air India flights from New Delhi to Tel Aviv would be shortened by two and a half hours [File: Reuters]

India’s national carrier has secured permission to begin direct flights between New Delhi and Tel Aviv that will pass through Saudi airspace, as reported by AP news agency on Wednesday.

The move ends a decades-long ban by Saudi Arabia on the use of its airspace for flights to Israel.

The day before, on Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Saudi Arabia agreed to allow Air India to use its airspace in flights to and from Israel, but Air India had denied having received the approval from the Saudi authorities.

Speaking to reporters in Washington on Monday, Netanyahu said Air India had reached an agreement with Saudi Arabia to use their airspace.

Saudi approval

In February, Israeli daily Haaretz reported that Saudi Arabia had granted permission, for the first time, for Air India flights headed to Israel to use its airspace.

But until Tuesday, March 7,  an Air India spokesperson maintained that “we haven’t yet received any communication about it from the regulator.”

The new route, Haaretz said, means that the airline would reduce fuel costs and sell cheaper tickets to passengers.

A spokesman for the Israel Airports Authority confirmed Air India has received permission to land at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport.

Israel – India route

The new Israel-India route was first announced by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit to Israel in July.

In his January reciprocal visit to India, Netanyahu implied the route could pass over Saudi Arabia, which, beyond significantly shortening flight time, would be a public indication of a warming of ties with Israel.

The new route flying through Saudi Arabia will shorten the flights from New Delhi to Tel Aviv by two and a half hours.

Air India spokesman Pravin Bhatnagar said the airline will start flying the route three times a week from March 22.

The Saudi government had banned flights headed to Israel from using its airspace for 70 years. While it is no secret that private jets can fly from Saudi and other Gulf airports to Israel, they could not use the direct route and had to make a stopover in Amman airport first.

Israel’s national carrier El Al currently operates an India service that takes a detour over the Red Sea to avoid flying over Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The airline has reportedly objected to the Air India route, saying the shorter flights over Saudi Arabia put it at an unfair disadvantage.

Regional politics

The move is seen as a nod to India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s influence in the region, who visited the occupied West Bank on February 10. Last year, he became the first Indian premier to go to Israel on an official state visit.

But the decision also signifies warmer ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which have been seen as having increasingly covert relations over the last year.

This has been credited to the shakeup of Saudi domestic and foreign policy, spearheaded by the young and ambitious Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

“The political changes in Saudi Arabia and the desire to consolidate power are the main reason why these relations with Israel were opened,” Mahjoob Zweiri, an associate professor in the Gulf Studies Program at Qatar University, had previously told Al Jazeera.

Source: Al Jazeera