Saudi Arabia opens airspace to Israeli flights ahead of Biden visit

The White House said the decision to open Saudi airspace "paves the way for a more integrated, stable, and secure Middle East."

AN EL AL plane carrying Israeli and US delegations to Abu Dhabi departs from Ben-Gurion Airport on August 31. (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
AN EL AL plane carrying Israeli and US delegations to Abu Dhabi departs from Ben-Gurion Airport on August 31.
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

Saudi Arabia's General Authority of Civil Aviation announced early Friday morning that it had decided to allow "all air carriers that meet the requirements of the authority" to fly in the Kingdom's airspace, a decision that will allow Israeli airlines to fly over the entire country.

"Within the framework of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's keenness to fulfill its obligations under the Chicago Convention of 1944, which stipulates non-discrimination between civil aircrafts used in international air navigation, and to complement the efforts aimed at consolidating the Kingdom's position as a global hub connecting three continents and to enhance international air connectivity, the General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA) announces the decision to open the Kingdom's airspace for all air carriers that meet the requirements of the Authority for overflying," read the Kingdom's announcement.

The decision, which does not mention Israel by name, comes amid US President Joe Biden's visit to Israel and less than 24 hours before the president is set to take off from Ben-Gurion Airport to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

"After a long road of intense and covert diplomacy with Saudi Arabia and the United States, today we have good news. The Saudi aviation authorities have announced that they will be opening Saudi airspace to Israeli airlines," said Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

He further thanked "the Saudi leadership for the opening of Saudi airspace. This is only the first step. We will continue working with [the] necessary caution, for the sake of Israel’s economy, security and the good of our citizens."

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan issued a statement welcoming the statement on Friday morning, 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."

An Israeli flag is seen on the first of Israel's El Al Airlines order of 16 Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner jets, as it lands at Ben Gurion International Airport, near Tel Aviv (credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)An Israeli flag is seen on the first of Israel's El Al Airlines order of 16 Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner jets, as it lands at Ben Gurion International Airport, near Tel Aviv (credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)

"This decision paves the way for a more integrated, stable, and secure Middle East region."

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan

"This decision is the result of the president’s persistent and principled diplomacy with Saudi Arabia over many months, culminating in his visit today," added Sullivan. "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." 

The national security advisor added that Biden will have "more to say" on the decision later on Friday as he and his staff depart on their flight directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia.

Numerous media reports in recent weeks have claimed that Saudi Arabia would open its airspace to Israeli airlines as a gesture amid efforts by the US and Israel to encourage relations between the Kingdom and the Jewish state.

According to the reports, Israel was going to agree to new security arrangements which would allow Egypt to transfer control of two islands in the Straits of Tiran to Saudi Arabia in return for the opening of Saudi airspace to Israeli airlines. Such an agreement had not been officially announced as of early Friday morning.

Even before the decision, Israeli airlines were allowed to conduct flights to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain through a special air corridor over Saudi territory, but the new decision now opens all of Saudi airspace to Israeli airlines, cutting off hours from flights to and from Asia.

"In a certain sense, this is the bare minimum" of steps to be taken by the Saudis, Amos Yadlin, the former head of the IDF's Military Intelligence Directorate and the current head of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), told Army Radio on Friday morning. 

"It's a significant development that serves as a link in the chain of the thawing of [cold] relations between our countries, but it is still very far from the normalization and the peace that we want." 

This opens up a whole new window of travel to the east, Tourism Minister Yoel Razvozov (Yesh Atid) said, noting "flights will be cheaper now" and "this opens up so many more travel destinations for Israelis.

"Thank you to the Saudi kingdom, to [US] President [Joe] Biden and to Prime Minister Yair Lapid for bringing about a vision of a new reality in the Middle East." 

Still unclear if direct flights for Muslim pilgrims from Israel will be permitted

Reports from recent weeks had also claimed that Saudi Arabia would allow charter flights to carry Muslim pilgrims directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia to perform the hajj, a mandatory pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims must do at least once in their lives.

The announcement on Friday morning did not mention such an arrangement.