“Riyadh allows Air India to use space for Israel flights”. The official Facebook page of Ministry of External Affairs shared this news quoting Israeli daily Haaretz as its source. The news was also widely reported across Indian media and hailed as a “historic first”, a “diplomatic win” and “a sign of India’s nimble diplomacy in the region”  For 70 years, Saudi airspace has been closed to aircrafts with a flight-path to Israel. Opening up of Saudi airspace for Air India’s proposed flights to Israel would mean shorter flight time, reduced fuel costs and cheaper tickets. Predictably the news led to much cheer on social media. There was only one slight problem: Israeli daily Haaretz which first broke the news had retracted it within four hours after a denial from Saudi Arabia. Ministry of External Affairs, most Indian media and social media users missed this important update.

MEA post

The news and its retraction

On February 7th, Israeli daily Haaretz broke the news that Saudi Arabia has allowed flights to Israel over its airspace. The story was based on unnamed sources in the Israeli flight industry. Exactly four hours later it retracted the news saying that Saudi Arabia had denied approval of flights to Israel over its airspace. The update was based on a Reuters report quoting a spokesman for Saudi Arabia’s General Authority of Civil Aviation.

The headline of the story was changed from “In a historic first, Saudi Arabia allows flights to Israel over its airspace” to “Saudi Arabia denies report of historic approval of flights to Israel using its airspace”.

The story on Haaretz website now carries the revised headline and is carefully worded to say “If confirmed, Saudi Arabia’s move would be the first public recognition of its warming ties with Israel and would be huge blow to El Al” and “If true, Riyadh’s approval would mean that the duration of flights from India to Israel will be shortened by two-and-a-half hours, compared to the route currently in use.” But then as the title states, the article clarifies that “according to Reuters, a spokesman for Saudi Arabia’s General Authority of Civil Aviation denied the report, saying the agency had not granted Air India permission to operate direct flights from Delhi to Tel Aviv.

Current Status

According to a report by Reuters, Air India had “asked” for permission to fly over Saudi airspace. “An Air India spokesman and Israel’s Airports Authority said the state-run carrier had requested slots for three weekly flights between New Delhi and Tel Aviv.” It further reported a spokesman for Saudi’s General Authority of Civil Aviation as saying that the agency had not granted any permission to Air India.

A report by Al Arabiya also confirmed that no permission was granted by Saudi Arabia.

It is interesting to note that while Indian press rushed to believe the initial Haaretz story, barring a few, most completely ignored the amended version posted by Haaretz. No one thought of confirming the news with Air India or Ministry of Civil Aviation either. More alarming however is the Facebook post by Ministry of External Affairs sharing a news after it has been denied and retracted. One would have expected a ministry to be better informed. It is possible that in the coming days, Saudi Arabia may actually open up its airspace for flights to Tel Aviv. But then why count your chickens before they are hatched? Save the celebrations for later.

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karan
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karan

We journalists are a bit like vultures, feasting on war, scandal and disaster. Turn on the news, and you see Syrian refugees, Volkswagen corruption, dysfunctional government. Yet that reflects a selection bias in how we report the news: We cover planes that crash, not planes that take off.

Saptarshi Roy
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Saptarshi Roy

I saw the news on TV just now and planes operated by Air India can now fly over Saudi Arabia to reach Israel.