Author : Kabir Taneja

Originally Published 2018-04-03 05:18:22 Published on Apr 03, 2018
The permission for Air India to fly over Saudi Arabia must be seen as a major breakthrough, cutting hours off flights between India and Israel
Geopolitics and India-Israel flights

On March 23, an Air India Boeing 787 ‘Dreamliner’ landed at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport, marking the second direct air connection between India and Israel and the first one operated by the Indian national carrier. However, to orchestrate this was not an easy task and more than the economics of the airline business, it required diplomatic maneuvering from New Delhi, Tel Aviv and uncharacteristically, Riyadh.

The flight was not just another route operated by the Maharajah. The Air India Dreamliner became the first commercial service in seven decades to use Saudi Arabian airspace to operate flights into Israel — a country that Riyadh does not officially recognise (Israeli airline El Al does not have this access for its Mumbai flights).

The only previous instance in recent past of a flight using Saudi airspace to travel to Israel was in May last year, when United States President Donald Trump’s ‘Air Force One’ became the first ‘direct flight’ between the two countries even though it was a presidential one (however, reports of clandestine governmental flights have often appeared in the media).

So, why was it that India got the honours to break this long-standing impasse in a fraught West Asia (Middle East), and what does it mean for a region going through significant upheavals?

The crux of the matter is that despite the Saudis not recognising Israel and fundamentally being opposed to the very idea of a Jewish state in the region, backdoor diplomacy between the seat of Sunni Islam and the Jewish state has been a whispered feature of their largely non-existent relationship.  However, this odd pairing has one binding factor, a common worry over the rise of a powerful Shiite Iran. The clandestine understandings peppered between Israel and Saudi go back to the Arab-Israeli peace conference of 1991, held in Madrid, Spain.

It was the first time all relevant parties of the conflict engaged in a wholesome manner and while the conference itself did not lead to the success of multilateral talks that came after, secret negotiations between Israel and Palestine and Israel and Jordan proved to be controlled ice-breakers of sorts between the Arab world and Tel Aviv, a part of which was the eventual backdoor exchanges between Saudi and Israel.

The route taken by AI 139 from Delhi to Tel Aviv was a geographical crash-course on the dynamics of West Asia itself. The aircraft, technically, could have used the airspace of Pakistan and Afghanistan for the journey. However, since neither Islamabad nor Kabul have diplomatic relations with Israel, the aircraft flew south to Mumbai, turning westwards towards the Arabian Sea approaching the coast of Oman, which is often seen as the ‘Switzerland of the Middle East’ and, in fact, thrives on being part of such breakthroughs in the region, before entering Saudi Arabia.

The routing is not just geopolitically but ethnographically important as well, considering it’s a possibility Israeli thinking from living amidst hostile environment does not allow the locals to take this Indian connection, fearing a situational crisis in an event of an emergency landing on Saudi soil.

However, an important aspect to why Saudi allowed India to operate this flight is the fact that it’s part of a larger opening up of the Kingdom under the upcoming succession to the throne of the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, who has launched a whole gambit of changes once thought impossible in the highly conservative country.

AI 139 is now part of the crown prince’s pre-succession legacy, paving a route away from the traditional policies that had become synonymous with the House of Saud and setting up systems to make the country more approachable for the world, and more importantly, for the global markets. The crown prince has fast-forwarded the realisation that Saudi needs to dissolve its disproportionate reliance on oil to fund its economy and adopt a developmental strategy closer to the one its neighbour and ally, the UAE, has mastered by making Dubai and Abu Dhabi global economic hubs.

The recent ‘house-arrest’ of Saudi princes and elites in Riyadh’s infamous Ritz Carlton Hotel over corruption, the impending public offering of Saudi Aramco, the state oil company which just a decade ago was worth more than India’s Gross Domestic Product, liberalising the social order by repealing stone-age era laws and allowing women to drive, attend sport events and so on are all Prince Salman’s disruptions to a frowned upon Saudi social and political order which has been for a good part the most damaging aspect of its global image.

As part of Riyadh’s beta-testing comparatively open policies, it realises that while a shift is orchestrated to move the economy away  from oil, for at least the next decade petrodollars are going to be critical for it.

Considering the United States is now exporting oil itself and European markets are making a beeline towards renewable energy, it is the Asian economies such as India and China where the demand for fossil fuels is expected to rise in the coming time.

Riyadh is hoping to tap into India’s expertise in areas such as IT and software technologies for itself while helping India with its energy infrastructure.  The task for Prince Salman is not easy. He has to court the powerful conservative lobby, the elite lobby that is used to having its own way while making sure financial infusion into the Saudi economy as it moves away from oil does not diminish the overall worth of the economy.

This is critical as Riyadh funds a large number of social programmes for its population, both to keep them employed and keep the probability of internal popular dissent to the bare minimum.  For New Delhi, its tightrope walk with regard to its west Asia policy which has been consistently non-aligned since the 1950s has, for this region at least, paid the dividend.

Not wading too deeply into the region’s internal and sectarian fault-lines and maintaining good ties with Sunni Saudi Arabia, Jewish Israel and Shiite Iran has also forced Tehran (large oil and gas supplier to India) to accept India’s good ties with Riyadh and Tel Aviv, Riyadh (large oil supplier to India) to accept India’s good ties with Tehran and Tel Aviv and Tel Aviv (India being its biggest export market for defense sector) to accept India’s good ties with Riyadh and Tehran.  Flight 139 is an outcome of this institutionalised approach towards the region, and stands out as perhaps one of the very few countries in the world that could have pulled this project off.

This commentary originally appeared in The Pioneer.

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Kabir Taneja

Kabir Taneja

Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with Strategic Studies programme. His research focuses on Indias relations with West Asia specifically looking at the domestic political dynamics ...

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Jonathan Phillips

Jonathan Phillips

Jonathan Phillips James E. Rogers Energy Access Project Duke University

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