Monday, March 12, 2018

Air India flight over Saudi airspace part of delicate ‘political change’ in Arab world

Air India began selling tickets this past week for the first flight in its new leg from New Delhi to Tel Aviv and back again. The route, which will begin operations on March 22 with three weekly flights by the national carrier of India, will fly directly over Saudi Arabia.

Today, all Israeli carriers, as well as every foreign carrier that takes off or lands in Israel, is banned from passing through the airspace of all Arab states, with the exception of Jordan and Egypt—countries that have recognized international peace treaties with Israel. Because of the ban, flights from Israel to Asia are forced to fly north to Turkey and only then turn east, and vice versa—a detour that adds several hours to each flight.
The Air India route will become the first international one to travel through the skies of an Arab country with no official ties with Israel. As such, it will break an aerial embargo initiated by Arab states with Israel’s founding in 1948. Flying over Saudi Arabia will shorten the flight time between India and Israel by hours and enable the carriers to drop ticket prices by hundreds of dollars.

“This is truly a historic event,” said Israel’s Minister of Tourism Yariv Levin in an exclusive interview. “It is proof that political change can be achieved without resorting to territorial compromise.”

However, he added, “until the flight lands, I recommend restrained enthusiasm.”

Levin explained that “the move is dramatic—from both a political and tourism standpoint. What the new route means is that the world is beginning to treat us in a whole new way. Until now, some countries have completely avoided any public demonstration of a connection with Israel. As for tourism, as soon as there is a short direct route to India, and maybe other places as well, prices will drop and tourism will swell.”

Levin said the idea of a new route was first voiced in his office two years ago. A grant of 3.2 million NIS that the Ministry of Tourism promised Air India convinced their directorate to take the financial risk of opening the new route.

Despite the excitement in Israel, the public response is still restrained; everyone is aware of the sensitivity surrounding the new route. Saudi Arabia is a central state in the Persian Gulf, and for decades has steadfastly refused any rapprochement with Israel. In recent years, as a result of geostrategic changes in the Middle East and increased openness in Saudi Arabia to the Western world, informal ties have increased between the Muslim kingdom and the Jewish state.

The Saudi press has taken a softer approach to Israel, and informal representatives of the royal family have met with Israelis. Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot and Israeli Minister of Transportation Yisrael Katz have been interviewed on Saudi television. In addition to the visible steps come reports in the foreign press of intelligence cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and meetings between representatives of the two governments.
12/03/18 Ariel Kahana/jns