UAE 'normalisation flight' sees Israeli airliner officially pass through Saudi airspace for first time
The El Al flight departed Tel Aviv on Monday morning and landed in Abu Dhabi in the afternoon carrying leading US and Israeli dignitaries and marking an important step in the controversial normalisation agreement between Israel and the UAE.
Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shared a video on Twitter showing him tracing his finger over a map of Saudi Arabia as the plane flew over Riyadh.
There had been questions over whether Saudi Arabia, which does not recognise Israel, would allow the flight to pass through its airspace.
Before the flight departed on Monday, the El Al pilot told passengers they would be passing through Saudi airspace, a measure that shaved hours off the flight time.
"This flight records two significant events in the history of the State of Israel and in the region heralding another step towards regional peace - for the very first time an Israeli-registered aircraft will overfly Saudi Arabia, and, after a nonstop flight from Israel, land in the United Arab Emirates," El Al pilot Tal Becker told the VIP passengers on the tarmac at Tel Aviv, according to The Times of Israel.
"The duration of the flight with the shortened route over Saudi Arabia will be three and a half hours, instead of what would have been approximately eight hours as we fly eastbound."
Before the event, Israeli media reported a route map of Flight 971, after the UAE country code, showing it flying through Saudi airspace.
But hours before take-off, the Israeli Airlines Pilots Association warned that "to the best of our knowledge [this] still hasn't been approved by the Saudis", while a detour route that would have taken the flight south via the Red Sea.
Emirati and Israeli officials are currently in talks about regular commercial flights between the two countries
Saudi officials stressed on Monday that they gave permission for Flight 971 to use its airspace due to the high-level US delegation on-board and following a direct request from Washington, according to The Times of Israel.
It is unclear whether Riyadh will allow regular commercial flights between the UAE and Israel to pass through its airspace.
In 2018, Saudi Arabia gave Air India flights permission to Israel to pass through its airspace but UAE-Israel connections are a more controversial issue for Riyadh.
While a firm ally of the UAE, Saudi officials have said Riyadh will not follow Abu Dhabi in recognising Israel until a Palestinian state has been established.
Monday's flight will be carrying leading US dignitaries, including President Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner and Israeli National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat.
Images published by Israeli media showed that the plane landing in Abu Dhabi, which had been emblazoned with the word "peace" in English, Hebrew and Arabic.
Israel and the UAE announced a normalisation deal on 13 August, sparking anger across the Arab world.
Some Arab countries are expected to normalise relations with the UAE although none have yet announced deals with Israel.
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