(CNN)Saudi Arabia on Friday opened its airspace to all civilian carriers, including all flights to and from Israel, in a step toward normalizing relations between the two nations as US President Joe Biden tours the Middle East.
In a statement shared hours before he was due to fly directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia, Biden hailed the kingdom’s decision, saying that it could “help build momentum toward Israel’s further integration into the region.”
The Biden administration has for months sought to formalize security and economic deals between Saudi Arabia and Israel, in a bid to set the stage for a normalization deal between the two countries.
Riyadh is believed to have a covert relationship with Israel but has yet to officially disclose those diplomatic ties. In 2020, then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly flew to Saudi Arabia for a covert meeting with the kingdom’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — a claim that was denied by Riyadh’s top diplomat.
A possible normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia has been hailed as the “crown jewel” of agreements between the Jewish state and the Arab world. The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan normalized relations with Israel in 2020 as part of a wave of agreements at the end of former President Donald Trump’s term.
The kingdom’s decision marks the first time it has allowed unlimited use of its airspace by Israeli airlines to fly to and from the country. In recent years, Saudi Arabia has only allowed Israeli airlines flying from Tel Aviv to the UAE and Bahrain through its airspace.
The move fully overturns the decades-long ban on Israeli overflights in Saudi airspace. Israeli airlines flying to Asian routes like India and China previously had to take a detour around Saudi Arabia that added hours to the journey.
Saudi’s General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA) on Thursday said in a statement that it had decided to open its airspace for all air carriers “that meet the requirements of the Authority for overflying.” It added that the country is keen “to fulfill its obligations under the Chicago Convention of 1944, which stipulates non-discrimination between civil aircrafts used in international air navigation.”
Following Saudi’s decision, Biden vowed to do all he can “through direct diplomacy and leader-to-leader engagement, to keep advancing this groundbreaking process.”
Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid welcomed the Saudi announcement, which he described as the result of a “long road of intense and covert diplomacy with Saudi Arabia and the United States.” He said the decision was “only the first step,” and promised more was to come in the way of improved relations.
Lapid also thanked Biden and wished him success in his summit in Jeddah on Saturday.
The US President is due to meet with King Salman and the crown prince on Friday evening.