Is open Saudi airspace really a big deal? - analysis

While it may save a few in-air hours to eastern destinations, the move isn’t likely to save fliers a ton of money, nor is it necessarily a momentous step for Israeli/Saudi peace relations.

Illustrative image of a plane. (photo credit: REUTERS/SARAH MEYSSONNIER)
Illustrative image of a plane.
(photo credit: REUTERS/SARAH MEYSSONNIER)

Anyone planning a trip between Israel and a host of countries to the east are likely celebrating, as US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan announced on Friday that Saudi Arabia has approved the opening of its airspace to all aircraft flying to and from Israel, with no exceptions.

This move is expected to result in reduced flight times between Israel and destinations that include Australia, India and Thailand.

Sullivan credited President Joe Biden for the momentous diplomatic move.

“This decision is the result of diplomatic activity of the president,” he said. “The decision paves the way for more stability and security in the Middle East region, which is critical for the people of the US, and the security and prosperity of Israel.”

Following the announcement, El Al and Arkia airlines submitted official applications to fly in Saudi airspace which, if approved, will see flights take off from Israel to East Asia within the next two weeks. Israir is also expected to submit a similar request.

Assuming these airlines receive approval from Saudi Arabia, they stand to benefit from the shorter, more direct routes.

Elimination of circuitous routes to avoid Saudi airspace will mean that Israeli airlines can use smaller aircraft for flights to India and Thailand, and devote their larger aircraft to longer hauls.

“We can take a big airplane and use it in other places like Australia and Japan,” said El Al official Shlomi Am Shalom, noting that flying to Melbourne and Tokyo are still only being planned.

According to travel industry expert and Ziontours Jerusalem CEO Mark Feldman, the opening of Saudi airspace won’t drive down airfares.

“It’s only going to benefit [a few] Israeli airlines. It’s not all of a sudden going to be that airline prices are dropping by 25-30%.”

Furthermore, while the news has excited prospective travelers, there is no reason to assume this will soon lead to closer relations with Saudi Arabia along the lines of the Abraham Accords.

The Presidential plane carrying US president Joe Biden arrive at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on July 13, 2022 (credit: NOAM REVKIN FENTON/FLASH90)The Presidential plane carrying US president Joe Biden arrive at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on July 13, 2022 (credit: NOAM REVKIN FENTON/FLASH90)

“Whatever peace we have with Saudi Arabia will be similar to the peace we have with Egypt. It's not going to be a warm peace, like we have with the United Arab Emirates; it's going to be a rather cold peace.”

Ziontours Jerusalem CEO Mark Feldman

In the long term, Feldman said, “Whatever peace we have with Saudi Arabia will be similar to the peace we have with Egypt. It’s not going to be a warm peace, like we have with the United Arab Emirates; it’s going to be a rather cold peace.

“They want us, they want our abilities to invest with them. They want some of our technology, but they’re not welcoming us with their arms spread wide, like they did in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.”

What will it take for "warm peace"?

In order to achieve that kind of “warm peace,” Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir made clear what must occur in the region first: a two-state solution.

Saudi Arabia is “committed to a two-state settlement with a Palestinian state in the occupied territories with east Jerusalem as its capital,” said Jubeir in an interview with CNN following the announcement.

“We have [...] made it clear that peace [with Israel] is possible,” he added. “Peace is a strategic option [...], but there are certain requirements that have to happen before this takes place.”

“We have... made it clear that peace [with Israel] is possible,” he added. “Peace is a strategic option... but there are certain requirements that have to happen before this takes place.”

Despite the dubious warmth of future Israeli/Saudi relations, Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli believes the airspace development is a step in the right direction.

“It’s a better situation than full alienation and zero communication,” she told Reuters. “So whatever we can achieve, we should go for it and work toward building more and more of a relationship and more and more trust.”