Saudi Arabia opens its airspace to Israel for first time ever as Air India flight bound for Tel Aviv ends a 70-year-old ban

Saudi Arabia opened its airspace for the first time to a commercial flight to Israel on Thursday with an Air India route flying non-stop between New Delhi and Tel Aviv – a sign of a behind-the-scenes improvement in ties between the Arab kingdom and the Jewish state.

The Air India 139 flight landed at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport after 7-1/2 hours and flew over Saudi for around three hours, marking a diplomatic shift for Riyadh that Israel says was fuelled by shared concern over Iranian influence in the region.

It comes after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described relations with the Arab world as the ‘best ever‘, with common concerns over Iran drawing them closer together.

‘This is a really historic day that follows two years of very, very intensive work,’ Israeli Tourism Minister Yariv Levin said in a radio interview, adding that using Saudi airspace cut travel time to India by around two hours and would reduce ticket prices.

Riyadh, which does not recognise Israel, has not formally confirmed granting the Air India plane overflight rights. And while the move ended a 70-year-old ban on planes flying to or from Israel through Saudi airspace, there is as yet no indication that it will be applied for any Israeli airline.

The Air India Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner entered Saudi airspace at around 4.45pm and overflew the kingdom at 40,000 feet for about three hours, coming within 37 miles of the capital Riyadh, according to the Flightradar monitoring app.

It then crossed over Jordan and the occupied West Bank into Israel. The airliner had earlier flown over Oman. Officials from Oman, which also does not recognise Israel, could not be reached for comment.

Israel’s airline El Al, excluded from the Saudi route, says its Indian competitor now has an unfair advantage.

It plans to take its own fight for access to Saudi airspace to the Supreme Court in Israel, officials said on Friday.

And the company has asked an airline industry lobby group, the International Air Transport Association, to help it access Saudi airspace.

It has also accused its own government, which approved Air India’s new route, of putting it at a disadvantage.

‘Such approval, which was granted by the state of Israel, gives a significant and unfair advantage to a foreign airline and is contrary to any principle of reciprocity in the world of international aviation,’ the company said in a statement.

The court appeal will come early next week, according to one source familiar with the matter. A spokeswoman for El Al confirmed the company intends to bring its complaint to the Supreme Court, but would not give any further details.

El Al currently flies four times a week to the Indian city of Mumbai. Those flights take around 7 hours and 40 minutes, following a Red Sea route that swings toward Ethiopia to avoid Saudi airspace.

If El Al planes were to fly on to New Delhi, a destination El Al has said it might be interested in, they would require another two hours – and significantly more fuel.

Interviewed on Israel’s Army Radio, Levin voiced confidence that El Al would eventually be allowed to use Saudi airspace.

‘You know, they said the Saudis wouldn’t let any flight pass. So here, the Saudis are permitting it. It is a process, I think. Ultimately this (El Al overflights) will happen too,’ he said.

Asked if any other foreign airlines might follow Air India by opening routes to Tel Aviv over Saudi Arabia, Levin said he has been in negotiations with Singapore Airlines and a carrier from the Philippines, which he did not name.

They are certainly showing readiness and desire to fly to Israel, and I don’t know if they will also receive permission like the Indian airline,’ he said.

Yet Singapore Airlines told Reuters it is not currently considering services to Israel. A spokesperson for Philippine Airlines said the company was not in any talks to launch a flight.

‘We are studying it, but not in the near future,’ the spokesperson said.

 Saudi officials could not immediately be reached.

There will be three flights weekly in each direction.

Israeli analyst Jonathan Spyer said that the Saudi concession showed that positive signals were being sent despite the lack of an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty, long seen as a prerequisite for relations between the Jewish state and the Arab world.

‘I think that what this shows is even in the absence of that you can have small gestures that are of real meaning,’ Spyer, director of Israel’s Rubin Centre for Research in International Affairs, said

‘That’s what I think that this Saudi decision to allow the overflights consists of. It’s small but significant,’ he said.