New Middle East airspace agreements – what they are and why they matter
Updated: Nov 23, 2020
Easily overlooked in the wake of the recent breathtaking pace of Arab-Israeli normalization developments are a series of highly significant airspace agreements. Let’s take a look.
* August 31 – the first flight from Israel to the UAE. An El Al 737-900 brings Israeli and American delegations to Abu Dhabi for initial talks on the normalization process. The event signals the de facto opening of Emerati airspace to Israel, a move that will be formalized in the next few weeks
* September 2 – Saudi Arabia announces that it will allow overflights to “all nations” on flights to and from the UAE. Israel, although not mentioned specifically, was the clearly the intended beneficiary of the announcement. (Incidentally, no mention was given regarding Qatar or Iran, the former which is still the subject of a 3-year old blockade from the UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt).
* September 4 – Bahrain follows Saudi Arabia’s lead and formally grants Israel permission to use its airspace on flights to and from the UAE.
* October 8 – Jordan and Israel sign an airspace agreement. The arrangement permits both countries overflight rights in the airspace of the other, and extends that right to third party nations in transit to other countries.
So what does it all mean?
Let’s start with the basics.
For the first 75 years of its existence, Israeli airplanes have effectively been banned from flying over most surrounding Arab and Moslem-majority countries. A few exceptions over the years include
1) Iran, prior to the 1979 revolution, maintained strong ties with the Jewish state, and Tehran was a scheduled destination for El Al.
2) Egypt and Jordan, since signing their respective peace agreements with Israel in 1978 and 1994, have given Israel overflight rights, but those amount to little value as airspace beyond those countries was not accessible.
3) A few other Arab countries in North and East Africa (Djibouti, Eritrea, Mauritania, Chad, Niger, etc., depending on the then-current status of diplomatic relations) provide overflight rights. But without the ability to fly over the Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States, as well as virtually all of North Africa, El Al has had no choice but to avoid wide swaths of territory and make giant detours enroute to far off destinations such as Bangkok, and Sao Paulo. This adds significant time and cost to flights, and acts as a competitive disadvantage.
The opening of UAE airspace was a much-welcomed symbolic win for Israel. But without the ability to fly over Saudi Arabia, it offers very little pragmatic value, as the alternative route is ridiculously circuitous. There’s no better illustration of this than the two flight plan alternatives filed by El Al for its August 31 historic flight to Abu Dhabi, illustrated below. The first involves a routing over Saudi Arabia. The second – more than twice as long -- entirely avoids Saudi and Yemeni-controlled airspace.
Hence, UAE overflight privileges are an important part of the puzzle – and a good first step – but in their own right mean little without the ability to fly over Saudi Arabia. And that’s why the Saudi announcement is so significant. If nothing else, it means that all airlines operating between Israel and the UAE can fly directly over the kingdom. And if that was all – it too would be major step forward.
But the indications – based on numerous press reports and a direct statement by Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and special envoy for Middle East negotiations, are that the Saudi directive applies to all aircraft no matter what their origin or destination. That means, for example, an Air France flight from Delhi to Paris could fly over the UAE, Saudia Arabia, and on to Paris via Jordan and Israel. That is a major development which, if true, will bring significant efficiencies not only to Middle East carriers but all airlines no matter where they are based.
However, there is still one technical issue that, until now, stood in the way. And that is – since the creation of Israel – there has been no functioning airway and accompanying air traffic services to enable a direct routing eastward from Israel over Saudi Arabia. Amman was the end of the road, as no airlines whatsoever were permitted to fly over both Israel and Jordan onward. It was a bit like the old Pan American Highway, connecting Alaska to Patagonia – except for the missing link through the Darien Jungle in Panama.
And that’s where the fourth announcement – the Israel Jordan airspace accord, comes in. There are two primary elements of that agreement . One – the “simple” part – is legal and regulatory. And that is the reciprocal granting of overflight rights to local and transiting traffic. The second component – is “building the road”. And that’s where Eurocontrol comes in. Working with both countries, the agency established a new airway to connect Saudi Arabia with Jordan and Israel, along with all the supporting navigational and communication infrastructure and rules to support it. The bridge had been built -- the two sides connected.
By October 14th, the airway was already operational. Etihad flight 88, a 787-10 enroute from Milan Malpensa to Abu Dhabi crossed over Israel and Jordan on N134 before continuing on UN318 over Saudi Arabia.
And what about Announcement #3 – the opening of Bahraini airspace for flights between the UAE and Israel? While Bahrain -- the country -- is tiny – its airspace is not. It controls a wide swath of airspace in the Gulf – and opening it to transiting traffic eliminates and unnecessary dog-leg over Riyadh.
The difference can be seen in the two actual flight paths taken – one from the first Tel Aviv – Abu Dhabi flight on August 31. And the second – the Etihad flight in the reverse direction on October 19 using a more direct routing over Bahrain.
The cumulative result of the four airspace agreements is monumental. As Middle East airspace has become increasingly clogged through bottlenecks caused by political developments and war (Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya) and the Qatar blockade – not to mention the devastating impact of COVID-19 – it’s great to have something to really celebrate.