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Saudi Arabia opens airspace for UAE-Israel flights

Saudi Arabia agreed Wednesday to permit UAE flights to “all countries” to overfly the kingdom, as Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu signalled more direct flights linking the UAE with the Jewish state.

The announcement comes after the first direct commercial flight from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi on Monday, which passed through Saudi airspace, to mark the normalisation of Israel-UAE ties.

Riyadh’s decision marks another concrete sign of Saudi Arabia’s cooperation with Israel even after it refused publicly to follow the UAE in establishing diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.

The official Saudi Press Agency said the kingdom had accepted an Emirati request to allow the use of its airspace for “flights heading to the UAE and departing from it to all countries”.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, announced that Monday’s landmark commercial flight across Saudi Arabia would not be the last.

“Now there is another tremendous breakthrough,” he wrote in a statement shortly after the Saudi announcement.

“Israeli planes and those from all countries will be able to fly directly from Israel to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and back,” Netanyahu said, without giving any timeline.

“Flights will be cheaper and shorter, and it will lead to robust tourism and develop our economy,” he said.

– ‘Alternative normalisation’ –

Saudi Arabia has said it will not establish diplomatic ties with Israel until the Jewish state has signed an internationally recognised peace accord with the Palestinians.

Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan insisted that Wednesday’s decision does not change the kingdom’s “firm and established” position towards the Palestinian issue.

But the kingdom has cultivated clandestine relations with Israel in recent years based on a shared animosity towards Iran, in a shift spearheaded by de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

“This is what I would call ‘alternative normalisation’,” said Ryan Bohl, of the US geopolitical think tank Stratfor, referring to Riyadh’s announcement.

“Saudi Arabia will explore indirect relations with Israel until the Saudi public is better prepared for a deeper strategic change. That will be a slow process,” Bohl told AFP.

Allowing flights between Israel and the UAE to cross Saudi airspace save long detours around the Arabian peninsula.

“Today’s announcement signals… the warming of relations between the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Israel,” Marc Schneier, an American rabbi with close ties to the Gulf, told AFP.

“While they are still deeply committed to the Palestinian people, this first step is a big one and should be celebrated.”

This is not the first time the kingdom has opened its airspace for Israel-bound flights.

In March 2018, Air India launched the first scheduled service to Israel that was allowed to cross Saudi airspace.

– Sensitive politics –

President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner, who has led a US push for Gulf states to establish ties with Israel as it seeks to isolate Iran, led an American delegation aboard Monday’s flight.

Saudi Arabia’s decision comes after Kushner met Prince Mohammed on Tuesday in the planned Red Sea megacity of NEOM.

On Wednesday, Kushner met with Qatari ruler Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani to discuss “the peace process in the Middle East region,” according to Qatar’s state news agency.

There was no comment by the emir on the UAE’s normalisation of ties with Israel, or any suggestion that Doha could follow suit.

Saudi Arabia, the Arab world’s biggest economy and home to Islam’s holiest sites, faces more sensitive political calculations than the UAE.

Not only would a formal recognition of Israel be seen by Palestinians and their supporters as a betrayal of their cause, it would also hurt the kingdom’s image as the leader of the Islamic world.

In 2002, Saudi Arabia sponsored the Arab Peace Initiative which called for Israel’s complete withdrawal from the Palestinian territories occupied in the Six-Day War of 1967 and an equitable solution for Palestinian refugees, in exchange for peace and the full normalisation of relations.