Saudi Arabia’s apparent decision to allow Air India to fly over its territory on the way to and from Israel, marking a historic first, is a “very important development,” says Dore Gold, a former Foreign Ministry director-general who in the past has had informal contact with the Saudis.
Gold’s comment came amid numerous media reports that the Saudis are changing their policy of some 70 years and allowing overflights of planes going to and from Israel.
Various Israeli agencies, asked about the issue on Wednesday, referred questions to the Prime Minister’s Office, which would neither confirm nor deny the reports.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brought up the issue during his visit to India last month. India’s Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj is on a three-day visit to Saudi Arabia.
Reuters, meanwhile, quoted a spokesman for Saudi Arabia’s General Authority of Civil Aviation as saying the agency had not granted any permission to Air India.
Air India is set to begin a thrice-weekly New Delhi to Tel Aviv route in March, and the ability to fly over Saudi Arabia will shorten the length of the route and the duration of the flight, as well as reduce air fares.
El Al currently has four weekly flights to and from Mumbai, but those flights take some eight hours because the Israeli carrier cannot fly over Saudi Arabia, but rather must go south down the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and then northeast over the Arabian Sea to Mumbai.
The flight to New Delhi will now take only six hours. This route, too, will not be the shortest, since the most direct route would be to fly across Iraq, Iran and Pakistan, something currently inconceivable.
Saudi Arabia has never before allowed airlines to overfly its territory on the way to Israel, and this would mark a significant departure from past policies and would come amid a steady stream of reports of increasing cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Gold said the decision, even though the airline that benefits will be Air India and not El Al, is significant because “it is a version of a Middle East open skies that has not existed before.”
Calling this move a “clear change,” Gold said, “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.”
Asked to explain the difference, Gold said that “normalization is a very scary word to them. 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 added that this move could be followed now by other airlines in Asia that have taken an interest in opening up regular flights to Israel. He said that there are a number of airlines interested in getting into the Israeli market, and that the Saudi decision to allow overflights could make it easier for others.
Among the other airlines in the East that could benefit from this are Philippine Airlines and Qantas, Australia’s national carrier.
EL AL’S INCOMING DIRECTOR- GENERAL Michael Strassburger said that his airline welcomed the Saudi decision, and expected that the same opportunity would be afforded to El Al.
He said that El Al has been running flights to the Far East for 26 years, and has never been able to fly over Saudi Arabia.
“Our expectation is, naturally, that fair competition will be preserved, that the principle of equal opportunity will be maintained, and that just as foreign airlines will be given permission to fly over Saudi Arabia, so too will El Al be given that same opportunity.”
Strassburger sidestepped the question of what El Al would do if this principle of fair competition was not upheld, saying that El Al’s statement on the matter is “positive,” and that the airline expects that it will have the same opportunities given to all.
In a related development, the Tourism Ministry announced that it will approve a €750,000 onetime grant to Air India for opening the direct line, said Lydia Weitzman, a spokeswoman for the ministry. She said this is done to “encourage new routes from destinations that have potential for incoming tourism,” and that this is not a new policy, but rather something Israel has done in the past.
According to Tourism Ministry figures, some 58,000 Indian tourists came to Israel in 2017, a 47% increase from 2015. Israel is making a concerted effort to woo Indian visitors, with Netanyahu’s meetings with Bollywood executives and actors last month an attempt to get them to shoot movies in Israel. Prime Minister Office director-general Eli Groner said during Netanyahu’s visit that studies show clearly that countries where Bollywood movies are filmed see a significant bump in tourism from India.
Just over 60,000 Israelis visited India in last year, according to a report last month on the India Today television network. This represents a 20% increase from 2015.