Open Skies: Alleviating Turbulence In Middle East Arena
Israeli Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev (R) and Mohamed Bin Thaaloob al-Derai, President of UAE Wrestling Judo & Kickboxing Federation, are seen watching a Judo tournament in Abu Dhabi last October. (Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)

Open Skies: Alleviating Turbulence In Middle East Arena

Israel and UAE inch closer to establishing ties as delegations from both countries travel together to set up future exchanges

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu appears to be on the brink of another victory in his diplomatic rapprochement with the Arab world. Last October, he paid an official state visit to Oman where he met with Sultan Qaboos bin Said, and now an Israeli delegation is reportedly preparing the groundwork for the premier to make a historic visit to the United Arab Emirates.

Jordan and Egypt are the only Arab states to have established formal relations with the Jewish state.

According to the UAE’s Al Khaleej Online, high-ranking Emirati and Israeli officials recently traveled together on a direct flight from Abu Dhabi to Tel Aviv. The private passenger plane labeled 9H-VCL flew through Saudi airspace, instead of stopping for a layover in Jordan, as is normal procedure.

The Israeli delegation was apparently returning from a secret trip to Abu Dhabi where it was busy preparing for “a surprise visit” before Netanyahu’s planned trip by the UAE’s foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed to Tel Aviv, “high-level” sources told the online newspaper.

Many analysts believe Netanyahu’s diplomatic flurry is driven by an attempt to establish a united front against Iran and its nuclear ambitions.

“The trip amounts to a sea-change in Israel’s relations with Arab states, but at the same time it raises questions,” Dr. Brandon Friedman, Director of Research at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University, told The Media Line.

“What do the trips mean in terms of substance? These state-to-state relations in the diplomatic and security realms are an asset to Israel when it comes to confronting Iran. Gulf states see Israel as a key ally in containing the Islamic Republic’s regional expansion. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen how far these relationships can grow beyond this level.

“You have to walk before you run,” he continued, “and these are tremendously important initial steps toward eventually having perhaps a fuller relationship with these states. But the Palestinian issue is vital and if it remains unresolved could prevent Israel from reaping the full awards of these newfound ties.”

The UAE is becoming a key country in the region because of its desire to project influence beyond its borders, Dr. Friedman noted. “Without having the Salafi religious conservatism that comes along with Saudi Arabia, there is more potential with the Emiratis for common ground.”

Aharon Lapidot, an aviation expert, told The Media Line that the forging of diplomatic relations could have tremendous economic implications, given that flying through Saudi airspace allows Israeli planes direct and quick access to eastern powerhouses such as China and India.

“While Thailand is important for tourists, China and India are much more vital destinations economically because of Israel’s extensive business and hi-tech links with the two countries,” Lapidot said.

Most Israeli flights must navigate around key nodes on the Middle East map to avoid nations with which it does not enjoy relations, he explained. When an Israeli plane flies to China, for example, it must be routed through Russia—instead of traversing Saudi Arabia—adding hours to the trip.

According to Lapidot, cutting down flight times would benefit airlines, entrepreneurs that would be inclined to travel more, and passengers that would pay less.

“For many years Israel was not a hub for flights from Europe to the Far East—despite its strategic location—because those originating from or even going to Israel must circumnavigate the Arab countries that do not recognize it. But now Israel has a real chance of becoming a convenient hub,” he concluded.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced “new inroads” into the Muslim world on Sunday after re-establishing formal ties with Chad during a visit to the country. He also pledged to cooperate with N’Djamena on issues ranging from counter-terrorism to technology to agriculture.

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