Israel asks Saudis to let Mecca pilgrims fly direct from Tel Aviv

Israel's Regional Cooperation Minister, Esawi Freij, asked Saudi Arabia to allow Muslims to take direct flights from Israel so they can make pilgrimage to Mecca without having to take two flights.

 MUSLIM WORSHIPERS visit the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, Saudi Arabia. (photo credit: Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters)
MUSLIM WORSHIPERS visit the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, Saudi Arabia.
(photo credit: Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters)

Israel's regional cooperation minister said on Thursday that he had asked Saudi Arabia to admit direct flights from Tel Aviv for Muslim pilgrims, pointing to a possible new accommodation by Riyadh ahead of next week's visit by US President Joe Biden.

Israeli officials have also been seeking expanded permission for their airlines to fly over Saudi soil to Asian destinations.

Saudi Arabia, Islam's birthplace, does not recognize Israel and has said nothing of possible bilateral developments during Biden's visit. Israel has also shied from drawing such links.

But a person in Washington who was familiar with the matter said the new aviation deals sought by Israel could be announced around the time of Biden's visit, but that details still needed to be worked out and may not be completed in time.

But Israel's Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Freij said Israel has been working to bring what he deemed "under the counter" contacts between the countries - based mostly on commercial interests and shared worries about Iran - more into the open.

"I want to see the day when I can depart from Ben-Gurion (airport near Tel Aviv) to Jeddah to fulfill my religious obligation."

Esawi Freij

"I want to see the day when I can depart from Ben-Gurion (airport near Tel Aviv) to Jeddah to fulfill my religious obligation" of pilgrimage to Mecca, said Freij, a member of Israel's 18% Muslim minority.

  Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej  at the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee (AHLC) in Brussels, May 12, 2022.  (credit: URI LOBEN) Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej at the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee (AHLC) in Brussels, May 12, 2022. (credit: URI LOBEN)

"I took this matter up with Saudi Arabia and I really hope that day will come," he told Israel's Army Radio, without expanding on where or when such discussions took place.

Traveling from Israel to Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia has long admitted Muslim pilgrims from Israel, but they must travel through third countries. That ends up costing around $11,500 for a week-long stay, Freij said. Pilgrims from neighboring Arab countries pay around half that.

When the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain established relations with Israel in 2020, Riyadh signaled its assent by providing a Saudi air corridor for Israeli planes headed to those Gulf states.

"We are in talks on getting general (Saudi) over-flight rights for destinations other than Dubai, Abu Dhabi or Manama. This will save significant times for reaching Asian destinations, for example," an Israeli official told Reuters.