Historic Milestone for the Middle East: El Al flight lands in Abu Dhabi, the first Israeli plane to cross Saudi Arabia’s air space

With winter looming in the Northern hemisphere and the Covid19 vaccine still a long way to go, the world might well be heading into another lockdown, with jobs moving online and borders shutting down again. Several travel restrictions are back in place and it seems that those among us, who love travelling, exploring new frontiers and opening news doors may have to wait a bit longer to follow in Marco Polo’s footsteps.

Still, even during these challenging times, historical events emerge to suddenly open new chapters and bring new opportunities for peace and development. On August 31st, an Israeli passenger plane – flight El Al 971, so-called from the UAE international dialling code – flew through Saudi Arabian airspace and landed in Abu Dhabi for what the captain Tal Becker defined as “another step toward regional peace”. The plane brought senior officials from Washington and Jerusalem to the capital of the UAE to lay the groundwork for the agreement between Israel and the UAE. The two countries announced on August 13 that they were establishing full diplomatic relations, in a US-brokered deal that required Israel to suspend its plan to annex parts of the West Bank.

“This flight records two significant events in the history of the State of Israel and in the region – said the pilot – heralding another step towards regional peace – for the very first time an Israeli-registered aircraft will overfly Saudi Arabia, and, after a nonstop flight from Israel, land in the United Arab Emirates.”

The UAE is the third Arab country to agree to establish official relations with Israel, after Egypt and Jordan. After Israeli and American officials expressed hope that other Gulf Arab countries will soon follow suit, Bahrain too established diplomatic ties with Israel.

The flight was welcomed in the UAE as a turning point in the history of bilateral relations. It also ushered in a wave of new opportunities: from the Armani Café serving kosher food to tourism and energy partnerships, from commerce to cybersecurity, from the green economy to medical research.

More recently the Abraham Accord has been followed by a phone conversation between the Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nayan in which the two leaders also stressed their will to cooperate “in the fight against coronavirus, ways to empower youth in the region, the principles of tolerance and cooperation and the importance of dialogue in building friendships and lasting peace”.

In the meantime, businesses in both countries have taken advantage of the historic deal, leading to the establishment of a business council and the signing of finance, tourism, and other agreements. Israeli Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen said he expects the annual trade between the two countries to reach $ 4 billion in three to five years.

Banking is another sector destined to benefit from the new cooperation. The two countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on banking and finance on September 1, and a week later, the first official Israeli trade delegation arrived in the UAE, with the CEO of Bank Hapoalim, the biggest bank in Israel, present.

The UAE and Israel are both popular global tourism destinations, and are committed to facilitating direct tourism between the two countries, with direct flights expected to be set up by the end of 2020: “We are working with all the relevant bodies to both facilitate the opening of direct scheduled routes and the visa issue, to ensure fast and easy travel between our two countries,” Director-General of Israel’s Ministry of Tourism Amir Halevi said. Restaurants and caterers too are getting ready to welcome a growing number of tourists from Israel by preparing kosher food and training their staff.

The agreement also had the advantage to shorten the flight times between Italy and the UAE, when an Etihad plane coming from Milan was able to arrive in Abu Dhabi in 5 hours and 39 minutes.

In a climate of forced closures and standstill, the Abraham Accord has ushered in a welcome wave of opportunities for the region and a beacon of hope for a future of dialogue and cooperation.