JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – Contradicting outgoing US President Joe Biden, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said on Saturday that Riyadh’s decision to open its airspace to all civilian overflights had “nothing to do with diplomatic relations with Israel” and was “in no way”. precursor to any other step” towards standardization.
Prince Faisal seemed determined to pour cold water on stated expectations in Jerusalem and Washington that the kingdom’s decision, announced Thursday, to open its airspace to all civilian carriers – a move that will allow flights to to and from Israel to China and India by much shorter means and cheaper routes – marked a first step towards formal relations with Israel.
“No, it has nothing to do with diplomatic relations with Israel,” the minister said at a press conference after the GCC+3 regional summit in Jeddah. “The issue of overflights is a decision we have made…in the interest [of] provide connectivity between countries around the world, and we hope this will make life easier for some travellers. It is in no way a precursor to any other step.
In a speech late Friday after a pair of bilateral meetings here with Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Biden called the Riyadh flyover decision “a big deal, not just symbolically but substantially.”
“This is the first tangible step on the path to what I hope will eventually be a broader normalization of relations” between Israel and Saudi Arabia, Biden added.
On Friday morning, in a similar vein, Prime Minister Yair Lapid hailed the decision “to open Saudi airspace to Israeli airlines” as “the first formal step in normalization with Saudi Arabia.”
“I thank the Saudi leadership for opening Saudi airspace. This is just the first step,” Lapid added.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Saudi foreign minister’s remarks.
Riyadh made the announcement on the opening of airspace a day before Biden unveiled the planned withdrawal of an observation force securing a pair of islands in the Red Sea in what will allow their transfer from the Egypt to Saudi Arabia. The withdrawal was negotiated by the United States and required Israeli authorization because the presence of the observer force as well as the assurance of freedom of transport around the islands for the Jewish state were part of the conditions of Jerusalem to cede to Egypt as part of their 1979 peace treaty.
As a result, the Biden administration pushed Riyadh to take what it saw as steps toward normalization with Israel. The first allowed Israeli overflights and the second allowed direct flights between Israel and Saudi Arabia for Muslim pilgrims. This latest request has yet to be finalized, with the White House forced to temper its Friday announcement on the island’s transfer by stating that it “welcomes the related measures being discussed to include direct flights from ‘Israel to Jeddah for next year’s Hajj on licensed carriers’.
Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir also sought to dampen speculation regarding Saudi-Israeli normalization, telling CNN in an interview Thursday that while such a step was “possible” and a “strategic option,” a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians was a “demand” before Riyadh formalized its ties with Jerusalem.
Also at his press conference on Saturday, Prince Faisal insisted he was unaware of any discussions at the Jeddah summit on Israel’s inclusion in an integrated air defense network in the Middle East – an initiative both Washington and Jerusalem have been openly discussing in recent months.
“There was no discussion about a GCC-Israel defense alliance or anything like that. At least I’m not aware of any such discussions,” the foreign minister said.
Hours earlier, a senior Biden administration official briefing the White House press corps at the summit said Israel’s inclusion in the integrated air defense network it hopes to establish with allies in the Middle East would be very beneficial.
“We think it is very useful to include as many capabilities as possible in this region, and Israel certainly has significant air and missile defense capabilities, as it needs them,” the US official said, while avoiding directly answering a question about whether there had been any progress in advancing the initiative.
The idea of a joint air defense network between Israel and its Arab neighbors was mooted at the Negev summit of foreign ministers from Israel, the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and from Egypt in March.
In late June, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said an air defense pact between Israel and its regional allies to fight Iran was “already in action.”
In a briefing to lawmakers at the Knesset Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, Gantz said Israel and its regional allies — led by the United States — were developing a joint defense pact to protect against the threat of drones and missiles by Tehran and its regional proxies.
The pact, dubbed by Gantz, “MEAD – Middle East Air Defense”, aims to connect air defense systems to combat Iran’s growing use of drones and missiles in the Middle East.
While the defense secretary expressed hope that there would be a development in the effort during Biden’s trip to the Middle East this week, a senior US official told The Times of Israel that no announcement should be expected while the President is in Israel or Saudi Arabia.
However, official senior administration news reporters said on Saturday that the United States hoped there would be “additional announcements” in the coming weeks regarding the Integrated Air Defense System for the Middle East.
“Our allies and partners here in the region… have air missile defense capabilities. We are responsible for contributing to many of these capabilities, and we believe…there is [a] a big benefit to trying to see if we can network some of these capabilities,” added the US official.
Biden himself said in his remarks at the GCC+3 summit that the United States is “integrating air defenses and early warning systems to ensure we can defeat threats from the air.”
Speaking more broadly about the importance of regional integration, Biden said, “The United States will build political, economic and security ties between the United States – between American partners to the extent possible, while respecting the sovereignty and independent choices of each country. Integration, interconnection – these are the underlying themes of our meeting today.
Biden flew home from Jeddah on Saturday afternoon after a five-day trip that began in Israel and included a visit to the West Bank on Friday.
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