A Stopover in Jeddah

It has come to light — through an investigation by the office of New York Public Advocate Bill de Blasio — that Saudi Arabian Airlines refuses to sell tickets to holders of Israeli passports, even for the purpose of a stopover to a destination outside the kingdom.

Correction: Still refuses.

For this has been Saudi Air policy since 1948, as it is in other Arab countries, such as Syria, who have no diplomatic relations with the state of Israel.

In fact, that was the reason given by director general of Saudi Arabian Airlines Khalid al-Melhem, in responding to the renewed charge of “discriminating” against Israelis and Jews.

“If there is an absence of political relations between [Saudi Arabia] and any other country, we will not allow that country’s citizens into the kingdom,” al-Melhem said. “[Diplomatic relations] also apply to transit passengers … in case the plane is delayed, the passenger will have to enter the country; and at that point, it would be very difficult to let him into [Saudi Arabia] if there are no diplomatic relations.”

In his interview with Saudi’s Al-Watan newspaper, al-Melhem was not asked to explain why his country has no diplomatic relations with Israel. But that is probably just as well. He would no doubt have repeated the official line about Israel trampling on Palestinian rights.

Presumably, al-Melhem would not have forthrightly stated the reason for the Saudi policy toward holders of Israeli passports. Nor would he have volunteered the information that it is not just Israelis who are unwelcome in his country. Jews of any nationality are unwelcome in Saudi Arabia. Even American military servicemen stationed on Saudi soil for the purpose of saving them from Iraqi invasion during the First Gulf War found their movements and freedom of worship restricted.

Nor would he have admitted that the reason they are unwelcome is that hatred of Jews or anyone else who does not subscribe to Islam — in particular, the virulent version of it known as Wahhabi — is state policy in Saudi Arabia. Even non-Wahhabi Muslims are vilified as infidels in the state-run educational system.

Still, we would like to commend al-Melhem on what was euphemistically described in news reports as his “defense” of Saudi Air policy. As odious as it is, it does represent progress, of a sort.

Whereas in the past Saudi officials have lied, flatly denying that they practice discrimination against Israelis and Jewish citizens of the U.S., this time it was admitted.

The argument that the absence of diplomatic relations with Israel makes it impossible for them to sell tickets to Israelis is farcical. Once upon a time, not so many years ago, there were signs in restaurants in Miami Beach saying, “No Negroes, Jews or dogs allowed.” If you’d have asked the proprietor why, he’d have told you it’s not that he discriminated against anybody. Not at all. It’s just that he could not possibly be expected to serve second-class citizens….

But at least the Saudis don’t have the effrontery to lie in our faces. They did not claim, as did the Saudi Embassy in Washington in a previous incident, that rumors regarding passenger flight restrictions on the Jeddah-based airline were “completely false.”

Then again, perhaps it’s only because this time there was no way out. It wasn’t just rumor or anecdotal evidence; they were caught at it by a government agency. A member of de Blasio’s staff who tried to buy a ticket was asked his nationality and was turned down outright when he said it was Israeli.

De Blasio not only condemned the Saudi airline’s policy as “discrimination,” he also pledged that he would continue to expose the practice “until Israeli nationals’ rights are respected.” The exposé has already prompted two U.S. senators to write to the Department of Transportation asking for a probe into whether Saudi Air is in violation of federal law against discriminatory practices.

Given the realities of politics and economics, it may be some time before Saudi Arabian Airlines is officially put on notice that its manner of doing business is unacceptable in this country, and especially in this city. This will most likely not happen until Saudi Arabia establishes diplomatic relations with the State of Israel, or the oil wells of the House of Saud run dry. Or both.

In the meantime, one wonders why anyone would even wish to set foot on the barren sands of Saudi Arabia, even if only for a stopover.