First Qatar to Saudi flight takes off after thaw in relations

Saudia airline will fly from Riyadh to Doha later on Monday with services from Jeddah expected to start at later date.

Qatar Airways Boeing 777 aircraft Flying from Doha to Kuwait on March 7, 2020 [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic and trade ties with Doha, and imposed a sea, land and air blockade on June 5, 2017 [File: Sorin Furcoi/ Al Jazeera]

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic and trade ties with Doha, and imposed a sea, land and air blockade on June 5, 2017 [File: Eric Piermont/AAir travel between Qatar and Saudi Arabia resumed on Monday, according to the countries’ airlines, a major step as the former rivals normalise ties under a landmark agreement signed in the first week of January.

Saudi Arabia and its allies the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt in June 2017 slapped a blockade on Qatar that included closing airspace to the country over claims it worked to support “terrorism” and was too close to Iran.

Qatar always denied the charges.

The quartet agreed to lift the restrictions at a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit last week in the Saudi desert city of Al-Ula, after diplomacy by outgoing US President Donald Trump’s administration.

The first commercial flight between Qatar and the kingdom in three and a half years, a Qatar Airways service to Riyadh, took off from Doha at 10:45 GMT and was expected to touch down at 12:10 GMT, according to the airline’s timetable.

Al Jazeera’s Jamal Elshayyal said the passengers are family members who were previously separated from their loved ones because of the blockade.

“Not only is this seen as a positive move following the reconciliation declaration that was signed in Al-Ula last week between Qatar and the former blockading countries, the resumption of flights between destinations is something that is extremely welcomed,” he said, speaking from Hamad International Airport in Doha.

He called the first flight out of Doha to Riyadh a “very historic moment in what would normally be seen as a mundane flight between two GCC countries” due to the implications it has following “three years of a bitter dispute which now seems to be somewhat in the process of being in the distance”.

Saudia airlines will fly from Riyadh to Doha, departing the kingdom at 13:40 GMT according to its online schedule, with services from Jeddah expected to start at a later date.

The New York Times had reported that Qatar has been paying in excess of $100m annually to use Iran’s airspace to bypass Saudi Arabia.

“We also look forward to resuming a strong relationship with our trade and cargo partners in KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia], as well as the major airports in the country,” Qatar Airways said on Twitter.

“We are very pleased with the positive outcome from the GCC summit and the decision to reopen all borders with Qatar,” the airline’s Chief Executive Officer Akbar al-Baker said.

Land border open

Abu Samra border crossing to Saudi Arabia, in Qatar [File: Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

On Saturday, Qataris began entering Saudi Arabia through the Salwa border crossing.

Some 68 cars entered Saudi Arabia via the crossing on Saturday, while 20 others departed to Qatar, a Saudi customs official said.

“The crossing is in full operation. We welcome Qatari citizens,” the head of customs at the Salwa crossing, Ali al-Aklabi, told Saudi state television Al-Ekhbariya.

Qatar, meanwhile, said arrivals through its border crossing with Saudi Arabia would be subject to coronavirus precautions. All arrivals must be able to present a negative coronavirus test no older than 72 hours prior to travel.

All arrivals will also be subject to hotel quarantine for one week, Qatar’s Government Communications Office said in a statement.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies