Strong bilateral ties help Air India operate Delhi-Tel Aviv non-stop flights over Saudi skies

Ashwini Phadnis | | Updated on: Apr 01, 2018
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Israeli national carrier EL AL had moved court against grant of overflight rights to AI

Air India’s historic Delhi-Tel Aviv non-stop flight over Saudi airspace, the first flight to do so in over several decades on March 22 ran into controversy when the Israeli national carrier EL AL decided to go to an Israeli court against the grant of overflight rights to only Air India.

However, former diplomats like former Foreign Secretary, Kanwal Sibal, term EL AL’s decision as “ridiculous and short- sighted”.

The Israeli airline “should be looking at the larger strategic picture where Saudi Arabia has sent a very important political signal that Israel is not so much out of bounds that it will not permit overflight over Saudi territory by foreign airlines,” Sibal says.

A longer route

He is of the opinion that EL AL does not have much business in India and so the airline can’t be running into major financial losses because of denial of overflight rights over Saudi Arabia on its flights to India.

Currently, EL AL flies to Mumbai using a longer route avoiding Saudi air space which is closed to it.

This detour means that an EL AL flight takes almost 2 hours 10 minutes more than the 7 hours 15 minutes that the Air India flight takes to cover the distance.

According to former Air India Chairman and Managing Director Rohit Nandan, the launch of the flight is a “diplomatic victory for India.” Under Nandan, Air India had looked at launching a Mumbai-Tel Aviv flight in 2014 but the idea was dropped due to denial of overflight rights that prolonged the flight duration and made it economically unviable.

If former diplomats are to be believed the spadework for Air India’s Delhi-Tel Aviv flight began almost two years before the flight took off when the Barack Obama Administration managed to get the Iran Nuclear Agreement finalised way back in January 2016.

Former Indian diplomats feel that the Iran nuclear deal saw Saudi Arabia and Israel slip closer together as they considered Iran as a bigger threat. The close relations that India has with both Israel and Saudi Arabia and the growing friendship between Israel and Saudi Arabia may have translated into the Arab Kingdom allowing Air India to overfly its airspace enroute to Israel.

Talmiz Ahmad, a former Indian Foreign Service officer who served as India’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, UAE and Oman, told BusinessLine that Israel and Saudi Arabia have been working together since the Barack Obama Administration began work on the Iran nuclear deal. The fact that India enjoys a good relationship with both Saudi Arabia and Israel is also helping. “This (India-Saudi Arabia-Israel) is a triangular relationship based on very solid bilateral ties between the three nations though there is no triangular project which they are doing jointly except for this airline business,” he says.

Sibal feels it is improved relations that India has with Saudi Arabia and the “under the radar” good relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia which have made the flight possible. “What unites them is Iran,” he told BusinessLine in a telephonic interview.

“The other thing is the understanding between Israel and Saudi Arabia on dealing with Syria, the Islamic state and everything else. Saudi Arabia after supporting these organisations decided to counter them, who then started to threaten Saudi Arabia. Israel has always been deeply concerned about Islamic extremism targeting them,” he points out. Such international diplomacy and changing relations between states is also highlighted by the fact that not all parties involved in making Air India’s flight possible over Saudi airspace want everything out in the public domain. For example, the Saudi Arabian government is yet to officially announce that it has given permission to the Air India flight. The only statement made by the country was by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who announced the flight in Washington much before it actually started.

Given this situation, analysts feel that the court will be unable to give any relief to EL AL. “If the Israeli government wanted it could have stopped Air India’s flight saying it was overflying Saudi Arabia but it has not done that,” an aviation analyst pointed out.

Published on April 01, 2018

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