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Israel-bound Air India flight uses Saudi airspace in sign of warming ties

Israeli minister says it's a 'historic day' after Saudi allows the use of its airspace for commercial flights to Tel Aviv
File photo of El Al Airlines' Dreamliner jets at Ben Gurion International Airport, 23 August 2017 (Reuters)

Air India completed on Thursday the first scheduled service to Israel to be allowed to cross Saudi airspace. Flight AI 139 landed at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport about 30 minutes after its scheduled arrival time.

"This is a historic moment," Israeli Transport Minister Yisrael Katz told AFP on the tarmac as the Boeing Dreamliner rolled to a halt.

"It is the first time that there is an official connection between the state of Israel and Saudi Arabia."

There will now be three flights weekly in each direction, ending a decades-long Saudi ban on the use of its airspace for commercial flights to Israel.

"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 cuts travel time to India by about two hours and will reduce ticket prices.

Israel's national carrier El Al currently operates an India service to Mumbai that takes a detour over the Red Sea to avoid flying over Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Saudi Arabia and Israel have no official diplomatic relations, but ties between the two countries have been improving over the shared goal of countering Iranian influence.

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The flight approval comes after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described relations with the Arab world as the "best ever".

"The Arabs have never been closer to Israel," Netanyahu said during a visit to Washington earlier this month, adding that the greatest challenge for both Israel and its potential Arab partners is Iran.

While Saudi leaders have been coy about publicly addressing their country's improved relations with Israel, Riyadh is reportedly backing a US-proposed peace deal that has been rejected by Palestinian leaders.

During a May 2017 Middle East tour, US President Donald Trump flew from Riyadh to Tel Aviv on Air Force One in what is believed to have been among the few direct flights from Saudi Arabia to Israel.

In February, when Saudi Arabia approved Israel-bound flights to pass over its territories, critics noted that the kingdom was granting an official enemy state privileges it has denied to its neighbour Qatar.

Saudi Arabia and its allies have banned Qatari flights from using their airspace since the blockade against Doha began last year.  

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