'Israel seeking direct Saudi flights for pilgrims'

Aerial aspirations would potentially pave way for increased commercial ties between the two nations that do not have formal diplomatic relations.

Muslim pilgrims take pictures for the pilgrims as they pray around the holy Kaaba at the Grand Mosque, during the annual hajj pilgrimage in Mecca (photo credit: REUTERS)
Muslim pilgrims take pictures for the pilgrims as they pray around the holy Kaaba at the Grand Mosque, during the annual hajj pilgrimage in Mecca
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel is seeking to launch an unprecedented flight route to Saudi Arabia for pilgrims taking part in the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, Communications Minister Ayoub Kara says.
The aerial aspirations that would allow Muslim citizens to fly directly into the Gulf kingdom from Ben-Gurion Airport come amid talk of efforts to elevate relations between the two nations, which do not have formal diplomatic ties or air-traffic agreements.
“Reality has changed,” Kara told Bloomberg in an interview this week.
“This is a good time to make the request, and I’m working hard on it.”
Kara said Israel hopes the prospective airways opening would reduce the long travel routes its Muslim citizens currently have to take to reach Islam’s most holy shrine.
As of now, the approximate 6,000 Israeli Arabs who make the journey every year travel by bus for more than 1,600 kilometers through Jordan and Saudi Arabia to reach Mecca. A few hundred are permitted to fly from Jordan.
This year, the Hajj begins on the evening of August 30 and lasts until September 4.
Kara told Bloomberg that ideally Mecca-bound pilgrim traveling from Israel would be able to fly non-stop from Ben-Gurion Airport. However, the route currently being discussed could include a stop in Jordan or another country in the region.
According to Kara, the initiative would also aim to relax Saudi restrictions on Muslim pilgrims with Israeli passports. The prospect of the Sunni kingdom directly administering temporary travel documents to such visitors instead of the present Jordanian- issued documents is also reportedly being discussed.
While the plan has yet to get off the ground, Kara – who is Druse – said he has discussed the matter with Saudi and Jordanian government officials, who are “ready to do it, but it’s very sensitive and it’s still a matter of negotiation.”
Kara’s remarks come as Israeli officials increasingly point toward bolstering cooperation between Israel and Gulf states that view Iran as a regional threat.
Prospects for Israeli-Saudi contacts increased in June when King Salman’s son Muhammad, who is stridently anti-Iran, was named crown prince.
In May, The Wall Street Journal reported that various Arab Gulf nations were prepared to improve ties with Israel if Jerusalem takes what they deemed were significant efforts to relaunch the stagnant peace process with the Palestinians.
As part of the normalization process, the Gulf states would reportedly be willing to establish cross-border telecommunication networks, economic trade between Israeli businesses and their Arab counterparts and flight paths from Israel over Arab states’ airspace.
In exchange, such an agreement would require Israel to freeze its settlement construction and relax trade restrictions with the Gaza Strip.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump have both spoken in favor of upgrading ties between Israel and Gulf nations as a prelude to peace overtures.
All eyes were to the sky when Trump, during his first foreign tour as president, flew on Air Force One directly from Saudi Arabia to Israel.
The voyage was hailed as historic and was reported by Israeli and US media as what was believed to be the first direct flight between Riyadh and Tel Aviv.