Israel says Oman will open its airspace to Israeli carrier

Israel's prime minister on Monday announced that Oman will open its airspace to Israel's national airline.

The move appears to have no immediate practical effect because carrier El Al is still barred from flying over Oman's northern neighbor, Saudi Arabia. But it marks another sign of warming ties between Israel and Gulf Arab states, as Israel's behind-the-scenes dealings with its former foes become more public.

Benjamin Netanyahu told a gathering of Israeli ambassadors that Oman's Sultan Qaboos bin Said granted El Al permission to pass through its airspace during the Israeli leader's surprise visit to the country in October. The two states have no formal diplomatic relations. Israel only has peace agreements with two Arab states — Egypt and Jordan.

El Al said the news of Oman's permission took the airline by surprise, but that it "welcomes the prime minister's political activity to achieve every possible flight shortcut to and from Israel."

Saudi Arabia broke a decades-long ban on the use of its airspace for flights to Israel last spring, when it allowed India's national carrier to cross its skies. The move saved about two hours off of India-Israel flights. But the kingdom's approval did not extend to El Al, which is forced take a circuitous route that bypasses the entire Arabian Peninsula.

The kingdom's decision prompted El Al to sue the Israeli government, contending that Air India's shortcut put it at an unfair advantage. El Al said Monday that its lawsuit has not yet been resolved and stressed that the carrier "always seeks to ensure fair competition and equal opportunities between Israeli airlines and foreign airlines."

Few concrete details have surfaced from Netanyahu's meeting with Sultan Qaboos, the first such visit in over 20 years. But analysts have speculated that Oman's unique regional position could enable it to play a bigger role mediating between Israel and archenemy Iran.

There was no immediate comment from Oman on Monday's announcement.