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Historic First: Saudi Arabia Allows Air India to Use Its Airspace to Operate Direct Flights to Israel

Saudi Arabia on Wednesday 7 February 2018 granted approval to Air India to use its airspace to operate direct flights from New Delhi to Tel Aviv, indicative of thaw in relationship between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

This is the first time the Saudis are allowing flights to Israel to use their airspace, reported Haaretz. 

During his six-day state visit to India, Netnyahu had spoken about this move. He had told a group of Indian businessmen that they were trying to promote “ a simple thing-“ an efficient and direct route between Israel and India, the kind we have between Israel and Silicon Valley, the kind we now have between Israel and China”.

Since Saudi Arabia had not officially recognized Israel, it had banned flying from Israel to India and returning in Saudi Arabian airspace. 

The decision to be implemented in March this year cuts down flying time between New Delhi and Tel Aviv by two and a half hours with the additional benefits of reduced fuel consumption and costs as well. 

Talmiz Ahmed, who was Indian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia (2000-03; 2010-11); Oman (2003-04), and the UAE (2007-10), said “It will boost the air connection between India and Israel, and it has been long overdue.” 

“Opening up the airspace was the result of increasing interaction between Saudi Arabia and Israel, signifying that Israel is increasingly seeing itself as an integral part of the West Asian geographical space,” Ahmed said. 

“Hopefully, this will encourage Israel to engage more robustly with the issues that have distanced it from its neighbours, primarily the issue relating to Palestine and associated with that its propensity to resort to violence against its neighbours, particularly in Gaza and Lebanon on a unilateral benefit.”

For seventy years now, Saudi airspace has been closed not only to Israeli aircraft, but to those of other nations with a flight-path to Israel. The current arrangement allows only El Al to provide direct services to India. In an 8-hour route from Ben-Gurion International Airport to Mumbai, the flight crosses the Red Sea south of Yemen, then turns east to India.

The approval is not only a sign of warming relations between Jerusalem and the now-more-pragmatic Riyadh, the move, reported Haaretz, can “also be seen as influence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the region”. 

 Modi is scheduled to visit occupied West Bank on February 10. Last year, he became the first Indian premier to go to Israel on an official state visit. 

“This is the result of improving relationship between Saudi Arabia and Israel. The ties India have with these countries are well established and go back 20 or 30 years. PM Modi has built on that very vigorously. 

When asked if this is a result of Saudi becoming more pragmatic, he said: “This is also a reflection of the turbulence in the region where attempts are being made to shape new relationships and new alliances”.


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