Saudi Arabia opens airspace to Israeli flights

Saudi Arabia is to open its airspace to all flights to and from Israel, a foreign policy win for US president Joe Biden hours before he was due to arrive in the kingdom.

Biden, who hopes his trip will reset US relations with the Gulf state amid turmoil in the global oil market, hailed the Saudi announcement as a “historic decision” and credited his administration with helping to broker the deal.

The announcement provides Biden with a success on his first trip to the region as president after his predecessor Donald Trump helped broker peace accords between Israel and four Arab countries.

Saudi Arabia, however, had held out from joining the 2020 Abraham Accords, which saw the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco establish diplomatic relations with Israel. The kingdom, which views itself as the custodian of Islam’s holiest sites and a leader of the Muslim world, has insisted that Israel should settle its conflict with the Palestinians before it could normalise relations with Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia had already allowed some flights to Israel to use its airspace. The decision will include all airlines, drastically cutting travel times between Israel and Asia.

The announcement came after US-brokered negotiations between the kingdom and Israel over security arrangements in two Red Sea islands that Egypt had transferred to Saudi Arabia in 2017. Israel is expected to agree to the new arrangement, which involves the transfer of multinational forces that had been stationed on the islands as part of a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the day-to-day ruler, has signalled his interest in improving relations with Israel. Both countries view Iran as their regional rival, and Tehran has backed Houthi rebels in Yemen who have attacked installations in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia is leading a military intervention against the rebels in Yemen’s civil war.

The US and Israel want to encourage closer military and defence co-operation in the region against Iran. Saudi Arabia already has clandestine intelligence and security ties with Israel, but no announcement on new co-operation is expected during Biden’s visit.

Biden will be meeting Saudi leaders on Friday after arriving in the Red Sea city of Jeddah from Israel, including a separate session with the crown prince and his ministers. He will join a Gulf summit on Saturday that includes the leaders of Egypt and Jordan.

Although the US has pushed the kingdom and other Gulf producers to increase oil production to tame rampant global prices, no move on output is expected during the visit. US officials expect an agreement to pump more oil in the coming months.

Still, it will offer the chance to reset ties between Washington and Riyadh that had been strained since Biden came to office.

Biden had promised to turn the country into a “pariah” over the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist and US resident Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Turkey. The CIA concluded that Prince Mohammed had sanctioned the operation, something the prince has denied.

Biden has downplayed the meetings for weeks, saying he was primarily visiting Saudi Arabia for a summit and that his regional tour was aimed at promoting peace. But his visit is seen in Riyadh as an about-face and recognition that he has to do business with Prince Mohammed, who may rule the country for decades to come.

Human rights groups and relatives of jailed Saudi and Egyptian dissidents have criticised Biden for the planned meetings with Prince Mohammed and Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Biden had also snubbed Sisi after coming to office, calling him almost a year and a half later for the first time after Egypt brokered a ceasefire to end fighting between the Palestinian militant group Hamas in Gaza and Israel.

A senior US administration official said Biden would discuss human rights during the visit. But when asked by reporters on Thursday, Biden declined to say if he would raise Khashoggi’s killing with Prince Mohammed. He said his views on the murder “are absolutely, positively” clear but the visit was aimed at reasserting US influence in the Middle East.

The senior US administration official said Biden and the Saudi leaders would discuss “strengthening and deepening” the truce in Yemen, “balancing energy markets as we look ahead to coming months” and technological co-operation on 5G and 6G, among other issues.

The US has been worried that Gulf states have been using Chinese 5G and is wary of their growing ties to Beijing.

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