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Alex Macheras

How Saudi Arabia is using airspace as a geopolitical weapon

Air India launched the first scheduled service to Israel crossing through Saudi airspace [Getty]

Date of publication: 6 April, 2018

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Analysis: Having granted permission for flights to Israel to use its politicised airspace, Riyadh's exclusion of Qatar takes on renewed severity as a geopolitical weapon, writes aviation analyst Alex Macheras.
For most of the world, airspace allows the travel flow of all aircraft flying from A to B in accordance with international aviation law and adhering to signed aviation treaties that date back to 1944. 

However, in some parts of the world – particularly in the Middle East – airspace is often at the very forefront of diplomatic relations, with states such as Saudi Arabia using their airspace as a form of geopolitical weapon.

Saudi Arabia's approach to using airspace as a tactic has varied across all areas of the geopolitical spectrum, whether it is to influence diplomacy between another state, or impose a seemingly illegal blockade to a Gulf neighbour.  
 
Last month, Air India flight 139 touched down at Israel’s Tel Aviv Ben Gurion airport at 19:45 GMT. The US-manufactured Boeing 787 Dreamliner was the first scheduled flight to Israel to be allowed to fly through Saudi Arabia airspace in over 70 years.

The Air India flight had flown over most of Saudi Arabia for its final part of the journey from Delhi, before descending towards Tel Aviv. As the doors to the jet opened, Israeli Transport Minister Yisrael Katz told the world's media that this was "the first time" there was an "official connection between the state of Israel and Saudi Arabia."
Read more: Here for the long haul: How Qatar is overcoming the aviation blockade
Saudi Arabia's airspace diplomacy is perhaps one of the trickiest in the world, in terms of the kingdom’s active approach to ignoring international aviation law, refusing to adhere to its signed treaties, and implementing rules that suit the crown princes' foreign political agenda at the time.
Saudi Arabia's airspace diplomacy is perhaps one of the trickiest in the world, in terms of the kingdom’s active approach to ignoring international aviation law, refusing to adhere to its signed treaties, and implementing rules that suit the crown princes' foreign political agenda at the time 
The shift in this current airspace decision to allow Israel bound/originating flights to have free use of Riyadh's airspace is a clear sign of an inconspicuous improvement in relations between the the two states, given that Saudi Arabia and Israel currently maintain no diplomatic ties. 
 
While the shift in airspace policy remains of high significance, as this is the first time in decades that a scheduled passenger jet has crossed over Saudi Arabia en route to Israel, it is important to highlight that the change in airspace strategy would be the first public demonstration of the kingdom's warming ties to Israel.

The strategic decision by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and his authorities to use airspace as the example of a foreign policy shift reveals the importance of Saudi Arabia's skies.

Airspace ownership in the region has been under particular spotlight since Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt imposed a blockade on Qatar in June 2017.

Saudi Arabia insisted that they would keep their airspace closed to Qatari registered jets, despite this being in breach of a signed United Nations treaty which states "countries must not discriminate against a nationality of an aircraft." Yet, to this date, Saudi Arabia's airspace remains closed to whichever country it chooses, Qatar currently being the only one, now that Israel bound jets have started to fly over Saudi Arabia.  
 
Since the Air India flight touched down in Tel Aviv after its journey above Saudi Arabia, senior Saudi officials have spoken to various media outlets to deny any formal foreign communication with Israel.

However, in order to even facilitate an Israel bound jet to fly through Saudi Arabia, officials from both countries would have had to communicate regarding overflight permits required for any aircraft crossing the kingdom. These permits are only processed by Saudi's General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA) – the same aviation organisation who say they refuse to acknowledge Israel, while simultaneously processing overflight permits for jets from this country. 
The strategic decision by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and his authorities to use airspace as the example of a foreign policy shift reveals the importance of the skies above Saudi Arabia 
In Israel, the national carrier airline El Al are displeased, to say the least. El Al have slammed Saudi Arabia's decision to pick and choose who uses their airspace to fly to Israel, declaring it "discriminatory treatment against Israeli airlines." 

"It opens the door for other airlines to seek flight over Saudi Arabia en route to Israel," the chairman of the airline said,  somehow giving Saudi Arabia a new sense of airspace control for access into Israel.

El Al has started court proceedings against the decision and the airline has written a letter to ICAO [the International Aviation Organisation UN body for aviation] to describe how Air India will gain a significant and unfair advantage over El Al thanks to Riyadh's new shift in policy. In Delhi, however, Air India has remained silent on the idea of unfair competition. 
Read more: In-depth: Qatar’s farewell to the GCC? 
In the GCC – Gulf states have remained quite surprised at the move. "Nobody thought it would actually happen," a senior aviation figure in Oman told The New Arab. He explained how Muscat was told by Saudi Arabia to allow the Israel bound flights to use Omani airspace, and that "Saudi were changing their policy, therefore Oman could too".

If Oman had declined, the Israel bound flights may not have been possible, given that the Air India jet must fly over Oman prior to entering Saudi Arabia airspace. 
 
Meanwhile, United Nations' ICAO – who have not dealt with airspace disputes like this in their 70 years of existence – have recently announced that they will establish a formal advisory communication with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, in order to try to bring an end to the various airspace-related disputes taking place in the region.

This includes the seemingly illegal closure of Saudi Arabia's airspace to Qatar and the frequent airspace violations from UAE and Bahrain military jets flying near to Qatar's exclusive economic area.

If one conclusion can be taken from the recent game of chess in the Middle East, it is this – Saudi Arabia's use of airspace as a geopolitical weapon has demonstrated the need for stronger airspace regulations. 

Alex Macheras is an aviation analyst, broadcasting on international networks including BBC News, Sky News and Al Jazeera. Macheras has covered the aviation side of the Gulf Crisis since June 2017.

Follow him on Twitter: @AlexInAir

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