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Biden’s first win: Saudi Arabia opens airspace to Israel

biden saudi arabia Reuters/Evelyn Hockstein
Joe Biden arrives at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah having flown direct from Israel - the first American president to do so

Saudi Arabia has announced it will open its airspace to all air carriers, including Israeli flights – marking a stepchange for the kingdom which has a historical stance of not officially recognising Israel. 

The Saudi General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA) issued a statement on Thursday saying that the country’s airspace was now open to all carriers that meet its requirements for overflights, in line with international conventions that say there should be no discrimination between civil aircraft.

Israel and Saudi Arabia currently have no diplomatic relations – one possible reason why the Saudi statement did not refer to Israel by name.

US president Joe Biden welcomed the decision and said it was an important step towards building a more integrated and stable Middle East region.

“Today, I will be the first president of the United States to fly from Israel to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia,” Biden said in a statement.

“As we mark this important moment, Saudi Arabia’s decision can help build momentum toward Israel’s further integration into the region, including with Saudi Arabia.”

Biden, who has been visiting Israel and Palestine as part of his tour, will fly from Tel Aviv to Jeddah tonight in what will mark the first time a US president has flown directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia. 

The announcement secures Biden tangible progress on normalising ties between Saudi and Israel ahead of his planned visit to the kingdom.

However, despite the absence of formal ties, Saudi Arabia has unofficially been allowing the use of its airspace for flights between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain since its two Gulf neighbours established diplomatic ties with Israel in 2020 under the Abraham Accords. 

While today’s airspace announcement suggests that relations between the two countries are warming up, the ruling notably stops short of permitting Israeli planes to land in the kingdom. 

Earlier on Thursday a US official told Reuters that Saudi Arabia would also soon permit direct charter flights from Israel for Muslims participating in the annual hajj pilgrimage in Mecca.

“As far as I can see this isn’t open skies as such, but the full opening of Saudi controlled airspace only,” an independent aviation consultant and former Middle East president of The Jetsets, John Brayford, told AGBI. “It is a step towards normalisation of civil aviation.” 

Politics aside, the move will have commercial implications for the aviation industry, reducing flight times from Asia to Israel – airlines serving those routes will no longer be required to take long detours around Saudi Arabia en route to Israel.

Saudi’s GACA was keen to stress how the move will boost the kingdom’s aviation standing in a global context. 

The decision will “complement the efforts aimed at consolidating the kingdom’s position as a global hub connecting three continents and to enhance international air connectivity,” GACA said in a statement.

However, aviation experts were more subdued in their analysis of how transformative the move will be. 

“Saudi Arabia cannot be a hub without this step of allowing overflight, and more importantly landing rights, but building a hub will take time and connections and destinations on both sides of the hub,” Andrew Charlton, managing director of consultancy Aviation Advocacy, said. “That is a long-term project.” 

“This is a step in the right direction rather than a leap in terms of progress,” added Brayford. 

“Perhaps the word ‘hub’ is being overused in this context. Hub and spoke networks, of which the region has two world class ones in Doha and Dubai, need a major national airline to make them work,” Brayford said.

“Whilst Saudia is a strong regional airline, it has nothing like the network of either Emirates or Qatar Airways. To develop a hub with foreign carriers as a significant contributor is very unlikely.”