Saudi Arabia to Open Its Airspace to Israel

Saudi Arabia to Open Its Airspace to Israel

Over the past two years, diplomatic and trade relations between certain Arab states and Israel have taken an unprecedented turn. In December 2020, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain officially normalised diplomatic relations with Israel by signing the Abraham Accords. Although not party to the Accords it appears Saudi Arabia is working towards rapprochement with Israel.  

A significant step in this direction has come with the Saudi government’s announcement that it will now open its airspace to all countries on a non-discriminatory basis.  This has the most obvious and direct impact concerning relations with Israel. Previously many flights to and from Israel going east had to circumvent Saudi Arabia, leading to longer flight times and higher costs.  In November 2020, Saudi Arabia allowed aircraft flying between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain to use its airspace.  More recently Saudi Arabia has announced its intention to develop another global travel hub in the region.  Obviously, being a global travel hub requires non-discriminatory treatment in the pursuit of multilateral cooperation. 

Globally, flights between states and overflights of national airspace are governed by the Chicago Conventions adopted in 1944.  The intention of the system is to facilitate air transport between states allowing for the maximisation of the benefits achieved by open skies policies.  However, the issue of overflights, given the sensitivity of national airspaces and state sovereignty, is subject to a separate treaty the International Air Services Transit Agreement, also adopted in 1944 with 134 states party to the Agreement.  Saudi Arabia is not a state party and therefore has not been obligated to allow overflights on a non-discriminatory basis to the other states that are party to the treaty.  Instead states sign bilateral treaties with other states to allow for use of national airspace (see for example Canada which is not part of the Agreement). 

It is not clear if Saudi Arabia plans on signing the International Air Services Transit Agreement as the national civil aviation authority has issued a decision allowing for non-discriminatory treatment of transit flights. The decision was revealed just hours before the arrival of US President Joe Biden in Jeddah, who called the announcement "a historic decision" while hinting at the US role in bringing about a favourable outcome.  The decision may be part of the ongoing process of Saudi-Israel rapprochement or it may be exclusive to Saudi Arabia’s efforts to become a global travel hub.  Increasing and facilitating multilateral cooperation in global transport is to be welcomed regardless of intentions and if it contributes to furthering peace in the Middle East it is all the more welcomed.

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