Biden hails "historic" signal to Israel as Saudi Arabia opens airspace

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia - Saudi Arabia's aviation authority announced plans to open its airspace "to all airlines that meet the authority's requirements for overflight" on Thursday night, in a gesture seen as a signal of rapprochement with Israel.

Israeli aircraft will now be allowed to enter Saudi airspace.
Israeli aircraft will now be allowed to enter Saudi airspace.  © REUTERS

US President Joe Biden, who is currently on a state visit to Israel and is due to travel to Saudi Arabia on Friday, praised the Saudi leadership's move as a "historic decision."

Israel and Saudi Arabia have no diplomatic relations, with the Gulf kingdom not even recognizing 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.

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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 neighbors established diplomatic relations with Israel in 2020 under US mediation.

In 2020, Saudi air traffic control even allowed an Israeli plane on its way to India to fly through its airspace to avoid bad weather, according to a report.

Biden "welcomes and commends" the decision

President Biden said he was happy to be the first president to fly directly from Israel to the Saudi city of Jeddah on Friday.
President Biden said he was happy to be the first president to fly directly from Israel to the Saudi city of Jeddah on Friday.  © RONEN ZVULUN / POOL / AFP

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.

The White House on Thursday circulated a statement from National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan saying: "President Biden welcomes and commends the historic decision by the leadership of Saudi Arabia to open Saudi airspace to all civilian carriers without discrimination, a decision that includes flights to and from Israel."

Sullivan said the move paved the way for a "more integrated, stable and secure Middle East," which was essential "for Israel's security and well-being."

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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 normalization between Israel and the Arab world."

Biden's visit is his first to the Middle East since taking office last year. Several Arab states have established diplomatic relations with Israel in the past few years as part of the US-brokered Abraham Accords, though despite its step towards rapprochement on Thursday, Saudi Arabia is currently considered unlikely to join them in doing so.

Cover photo: Collage: REUTERS & RONEN ZVULUN / POOL / AFP

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