Saudi Arabia has granted Air India approval to operate direct flights from and to Israel over its territory, marking a historic first, Haaretz reported  on Wednesday.
Air India is set to begin a thrice-weekly New Delhi-Tel Aviv route in March, shortening the traveling route from India to Israel by two-and-a-half hours.
El Al is currently the only carrier that flies directly to India from Ben-Gurion International Airport to Mumbai. Using a different route, the airline flies over the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and then north-east over the Arabian Sea to Mumbai.
Some 58,000 Indian tourists came to Israel in 2017, a 47% increase from 2015, and 60,000 Israelis visited India in last year, a 20% increase from two years ago.
This is not the first time Air India has asked for such approval, however, Saudi Arabia has never before allowed airlines to overfly its territory on the way to Israel. In fact, when news of the Air India route was made public  a year ago, the assumption was that the flights would have to bypass Saudi airspace. For seventy years, the kingdom’s airspace had been closed not only to Israeli aircraft, but to carriers with flight routes to and from Israel.
The decision signals increased cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia, in light of Iranian expansionism in the region. In September last year, a member of Saudi royal family reportedly made  secret trip to Israel for high-level talks with Israeli officials.
Meanwhile, the Israeli tourism ministry announced that it will approve a 750,000 euro one-time grant to Air India for opening the new direct line between New Delhi and Tel Aviv. According to a spokesperson, this is done “to encourage new routes from destinations that have potential for incoming tourism.”
Saudi Arabia is not the only Muslim country that denies overflight permission to Israeli aircraft.
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew from Singapore to Australia last year his plane had to take a longer route in order to avoid  Indonesian airspace.
[Photo: Kentaro IEMOTO / Flickr ]