Saudi Arabia says it will open its airspace to all air carriers, paving the way for more overflights to and from Israel – a further sign that relations between the two countries are warming.
The Saudi General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA) said on Thursday the country’s airspace was now open to all carriers that meet its requirements for overflights, in line with international conventions that say there should be no discrimination between civil aircraft.
The decision will “complement the efforts aimed at consolidating the kingdom’s position as a global hub connecting three continents and to enhance international air connectivity”, GACA added in a statement.
The announcement of an open-skies policy by Riyadh will mean shorter flights from Asia to Israel, as airlines serving those routes will no longer be required to take long detours around Saudi Arabia en route to Israel.
United States President Joe Biden, who is set to fly to the kingdom from Israel on Friday as part of a regional tour, welcomed Saudi Arabia’s move.
“This decision paves the way for a more integrated, stable, and secure Middle East region, which is vital for the security and prosperity of the United States and the American people, and for the security and prosperity of Israel,” White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement.
Earlier on Thursday, a US official told Reuters that Saudi Arabia would soon grant Israeli airlines unfettered overflight access and permit direct charter flights from Israel for Muslims participating in the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca.
Israel and Saudi Arabia have no diplomatic relations, and the kingdom does not recognise Israel as a state – one possible reason why the Saudi statement did not refer to Israel by name.
Behind the scenes, however, the two sides have been working together on security issues for some time, as both are concerned by the growing influence of their common enemy Iran in the region.
Saudi Arabia has actually been allowing the use of its airspace for flights between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain since its two Gulf neighbours established diplomatic relations with Israel in 2020 under US mediation.
In 2020, Saudi air traffic control allowed an Israeli plane on its way to India to fly through its airspace to avoid bad weather, according to a report.
In a guest article for The Washington Post earlier this week, Biden said he was happy he would be the first president to fly directly from Israel to the Saudi city of Jeddah on Friday, calling the trip a “small symbol of the blossoming relations and steps towards normalisation between Israel and the Arab world”.