Saudi Arabia’s airspace diplomacy is perhaps one of the trickiest in the world, in terms of the kingdom’s active approach to using airspace to determine diplomatic relations. Unlike the majority of ICAO (UN-body for aviation) registered 191 member countries, Saudi did not sign ICAO’s ‘Transit Agreement’ — a treaty which permits overflight for all airlines. ‘Overflight’ is the passage of an aircraft over a country’s territory. As Saudi are not signatory to the ‘Transit Agreement’ it means the kingdom can choose which airlines it allows to fly through its airspace.
Until last year, Saudi Arabia had refused to allow any airline jets flying to Israel (which Saudi does not officially recognise) to use Saudi airspace. For airlines operating flights to Tel Aviv, Saudi airspace access is sought after, given the proximity of Saudi Arabia to Israel. With access, airlines would be able to fly a more direct route by using Saudi airspace, and would also save on fuel.
In March 2018, Saudi Arabia formally issued Air India overflight rights for Saudi airspace for its flights to Tel Aviv, Israel — in what was a major shift in relations between Saudi and Israel, given Saudi Arabia and Israel currently maintain no diplomatic ties.
Now, in early 2019, the Philippine government has confirmed it is in direct talks with Saudi Arabia to secure overflight airspace access on flights between Manila–Tel Aviv, which are expected to launch by the end of the first quarter of this year. Philippine Airlines is hopeful Saudi will grant the same overflight access on Israel-bound flights given to Air India, which would cut the flight time between Manila and Tel Aviv by one hour, to approximately 12 hours.
Philippine Transportation Undersecretary Manuel Tamayo said: “We have rights already as far as Israel is concerned. Hopefully, we should get to overfly Saudi Arabia to Israel. So we’re pushing for the signing of the overfly agreement by this quarter, as Israel is a seasonal market. Most passengers would like to travel there during the cold months.”
The decision to allow Israel bound/originating flights to have free use of Riyadh’s controlled airspace was viewed as an inconspicuous improvement in relations between the two states, and an unusual airspace development, considering Saudi’s continued airspace blockade on its Gulf neighbour, Qatar
While Saudi isn’t a member of the transit agreement which permits overflight to all airlines, the kingdom is a signed member of ICAO’s Chicago Convention — a larger ICAO treaty, which states that a country may close its airspace to all airlines, but may not restrict airspace access to specific airlines or countries. With Saudi’s specific (and continued) ban on aircraft registered to the State of Qatar, the kingdom is in breach of its signed ICAO treaty. However, ICAO has not dealt with airspace disputes such as this in the organisations’ 70 years of existence, and so the consequences remain a grey area.
In Israel, the chairman of the national carrier airline, El Al is not happy. He slammed Saudi Arabia’s decision to “pick and choose” who uses their airspace to fly to Israel, declaring it “discriminatory treatment against Israeli airlines.” The airline said Air India’s airspace access “opens the door for other airlines to seek flight over Saudi Arabia en route to Israel” and argued that if Air India, and now Philippine Airlines were to secure Saudi airspace access, Israeli carriers should too.
While the Philippine government continue talks with Saudi Arabia for Israel-bound flight airspace access, it’s likely some media reports will surface denying such negotiations.
Prior to the first Air India flight to Israel taking flight (which used Saudi airspace), several Saudi officials denied Air India was set to be given access, and social media was rife with ‘fake news’ accusations, all until the Air India jet appeared on flight radar over Riyadh, descending towards Tel Aviv.
If Saudi Arabia decides to provide Philippine Airlines with similar airspace access as Air India has for its flights to Israel, airspace dynamics in the Gulf are beginning to shift at a faster rate than previously anticipated.
However, unlike Air India’s flights to Israel, Philippine Airlines routes to Israel are not solely reliant on Saudi airspace access, and it’s expected the route will launch with, or without Riyadh’s approval.
Elsewhere in the Gulf over the last few weeks, Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu claimed Oman agreed to allow Israeli airline jets to use its airspace for overflight — something Oman has denied.