Home / Politics / Policy /  Saudi Arabia allows Air India to use its airspace for flights from New Delhi to Tel Aviv

New Delhi: Saudi Arabia has given its go-ahead to Air India to use its airspace to operate direct flights from New Delhi to Israel’s capital Tel Aviv, news reports said, in a move seen as indicative of a visible thaw in ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

It is also a sign of India’s seemingly nimble diplomacy in the region—of building ties with Israel on one hand and its Gulf Arab neighbours on the other as New Delhi tries to forge closer ties with Shia-majority Iran through infrastructure projects like the Chabahar port. The Chabahar port offers an alternative route for India to access landlocked Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics, given India’s tense ties with Pakistan.

According to a report in the Israeli Haaretz newspaper late Wednesday, this is the first time in seven decades that Riyadh is allowing flights to Israel to use Saudi airspace. Saudi Arabia officially does not recognize the existence of Israel. Saudi airspace has been closed not only to Israeli aircraft, but to those of other nations with a flight path to Israel. Most flights to Israel have to make a customary stop in Amman before continuing to Israel.

Hopes that Saudi Arabia may allow Air India to use its airspace to fly to Tel Aviv floated after Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his visit to India last month expressed the hope that the direct flight between India and Israel would fructify soon.

“The way I think Israel and the Sunni Arab states can progress is by taking small steady steps toward more normalized interactions, not normalization, but normalized interactions," Dore Gold, a former foreign ministry director-general who in the past has had informal contact with the Saudis, was quoted as saying by the Jerusalem Post website. “There is a steady improvement of contacts between Israel and Sunni Arab states, and this is just another case of that. It’s not El Al, but it’s not bad," Gold was quoted as saying.

Israel’s national carrier El Al operates three flights to Mumbai a week but it avoids the Arabian peninsula while flying east towards India—making it an eight-hour lengthy journey. During the eight-hour route from Ben-Gurion International Airport to Mumbai, the flight crosses the Red Sea south of Yemen, then turns east to India.

The flight time using Saudi airspace is expected to cut two hours of flying time, people familiar with the developments said, though the Indian foreign ministry did not confirm the Haaretz news report. The decision, which will be implemented in March this year, will also reduce the fuel costs which means cheaper tickets for passengers. The flight to New Delhi will now take only six hours. This route, however, is still not the shortest, since the most direct route would be to fly across Iraq, Iran and Pakistan, a person familiar with the development in New Delhi said.

The opening up of Saudi airspace for flights to Israel is being seen as a direct result of increasing interaction between Saudi Arabia and Israel. It was the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that was seen as the major factor for pulling Israel and its Gulf Arab neighbours together. Sunni majority Saudi Arabia that wields considerable influence in the Gulf region perceives Shia-dominated Iran as an ideological threat and a competitor for influence in the region. And Israel sees Iran as an existential threat. And any deal that was seen as freeing Iran from international sanctions has been opposed by both the Gulf states and Israel.

The Saudi move can “also be seen as influence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the region," said the Haaretz report. Modi is scheduled to visit Palestinian territories on 10 February. Last year, he became the first Indian prime minister to go to Israel on an official state visit.

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