Last month U.S. Jewish groups criticized Delta Airlines over plans to add Saudi Arabia Airlines as a partner in its international airline alliance, according to a Religion News Service (RNS) report. The complaints arose from concerns that Saudi law and policy would bar entry of American Jews to the Kingdom on an air carrier that was partnered with Delta.
The reports were met with clarifications from Delta Airlines and Saudi officials and the controversy and headlines appear to have faded. A statement from the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia said, “Rumors being circulated via the Internet regarding passenger flight restrictions on Saudi Arabian Airlines are completely false. The Government of Saudi Arabia does not deny visas to U.S. citizens based on their religion.” The Religion News Service issued a statement, according to The Huffington Post, that their report was “transmitted with incomplete information.” It said, “The RNS story on Delta Air Lines’ pending partnership with Saudi Arabian Airlines that was distributed on June 23 contained incomplete information about Saudi visa policies and U.S. Jews’ ability to fly Delta flights to Saudi Arabia. The story was not fully edited according to RNS standards.”
Another perspective on the Delta-Saudi Arabia Airlines story was provided by SUSRISblog regular contributing writer Abdulateef Al-Mulhim in an op-ed published in Arab News yesterday. He puts forward the notion of airline diplomacy as one way to build confidence on opposing sides of the Arab-Israeli divide in the way that the United States and China came closer through ping-pong diplomacy in an earlier time. We are pleased to provide his op-ed here for your consideration and thank him for sharing it with you.
Delta Air Lines and the Saudi Peace Initiative
On April 6, 1971, the 31st World Table Tennis Championship was in full swing in Nagoya, Japan. At that time there were no diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China. They were at odds and were in fact waging a war on Vietnamese soil and Laotian and Cambodian airspaces. There was no hope for a breakthrough. Top diplomats on both sides didn’t know what would be a proper opening line to bring about a thaw in ties.
However, the most unlikely opening line came from young Americans who didn’t know about politics. They were good athletes in their schools and knew how to play “ping pong.” They provided the breakthrough in Nagoya. The American team was invited to play a game in China after the championship in Japan. America, till then, was a country hated by the Chinese. But, in politics, why not try something if you have nothing to lose? The American “ping pong” team arrived in China in 1971 and were the first Americans to set foot on Chinese land since 1949 and President Richard Nixon visited China on Feb. 21, 1972 to seal the ping-pong diplomacy.
Before that, the only man who wanted to land in China was Gen. Douglas MacArthur. But, he was planning to be in the company of more than a million American soldiers during the Korean War. He was sacked by President Harry Truman. The president knew war would solve nothing. In wars, even the winner will lose a lot of men, women and money. Despite the initial moves that brought about the Americans and Chinese together, the U.S.-China relations didn’t materialize till 1979. The bid to make a breakthrough in 1971 was worth it. Today, the U.S. and China are the biggest trade partners.
Now, what about the Middle-East conflict, which has been going on from before 1948? The Arabs and Israelis have tried everything, wars and peace initiatives. There were open negotiations and secret negotiations. There were endless meetings in Jerusalem, Cairo, Camp David, Oslo, Madrid and many more cities. Nothing worked except the Camp David Accord. And the American president at that time was from the State of Georgia, where everything was named after the tasty fruit called peach. The president was Jimmy Carter. I would like to digress here a bit, by asking the question which airline Carter prefers to fly? I will answer it by saying, it’s an airline called Delta Air Lines. It is the largest carrier in the world and is based in President Carter’s state, Atlanta, Georgia. I flew this airline so many times that I achieved the frequent flier medallion in less than one year in 1993. I loved this airline; I wanted it to launch its direct flight from Atlanta to the Gulf region using a Saudi destination. It chose Dubai and soon it will resume its flights, stopped during the Palestinian intifada, to Tel Aviv, Israel.
In the past few months there was talk about bringing back the Saudi Peace Initiative and at the same time we heard that Saudi Arabian Airlines, Saudia, announced that in 2012 it will join the airline alliance, the SkyTeam. Now, Delta Air Lines became a political issue. When Saudia planned to join the SkyTeam I knew for sure that there will be a lot of questions asked about Israeli passport holders. I wrote an article in the Arabic newspaper Alyoum titled “Saudia and the forbidden passport.” Soon, I heard about some Jewish organizations in the U.S. that had sent petitions to Delta Air Lines’ CEO to stop the admission of Saudia into the SkyTeam. I was hoping that those organizations would give Saudia a chance, and had expected Jewish organizations to be more positive about the SkyTeam alliance.
Maybe the Middle East conflict will be solved by an unlikely team consisting of pilots, stewardesses and a Delta Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
Maybe things will not work out the first year, but things could change for the better. It took the U.S. and China eight years after the famous ping pong match in 1971 before both American and Chinese citizens could be seen at each other’s airports in 1979.
We saw Arab, Israeli and other political figures fly back and forth to no avail in order to solve the Middle East crisis. The Middle East crisis has become the biggest dilemma for any American president, UN secretary-general and European Union top politician. I think the Arabs and Israelis should take a chance for peace. And if this chance is taken, then the future generations could live in harmony. It would also give people and governments a chance to develop education and health care systems. It takes one single day of war to destroy years of building.
Today, we are seeing more unrest and destructions in the area. Why can’t we give an airline alliance a chance to fix things politicians and militaries have failed to do.
— Abdulateef Al-Mulhim is a Commodore (Retired), Royal Saudi Navy. (email@example.com)
Source: Arab News
- Delta Partnership May Cause Travel Headaches For Non-Muslim – Jun 24, 2011 (with RNS Editor’s Note)
- Delta And Saudis Respond To Travel Questions – Jun 24, 2011
Also by Abdulateef Al-Mulhim:
- President Ahmadinejad: Iran Doesn’t Need Enemies – Abdulateef Al-Mulhim – SUSRISblog – Jun 8, 2011
- Expats and Loytalty – Abdulateef Al-Mulhim – SUSRISblog – May 29, 2011
- Improving Saudi Tourism Prospects – Abdulateef Al-Mulhim – SUSRISblog – April 14, 2011
- What if Arabs had recognized Israel in 1948? – Adulateef Al-Mulhim – SUSRISblog – April 5, 2011
- Reflections on the Foundations of US-Saudi Relations – Abdulateef Al-Mulhim – SUSRISblog – Jan 22, 2011
- Is there a larger role for Saudi Aramco? – Abdulateef Al-Mulhim – SUSRISblog – Jan 12, 2011