First Qatar to Saudi flight takes off after thaw

Doha (AFP) –


Qatar-Saudi flights resumed on Monday as the neighbours normalise ties under a landmark agreement that ended a bitter three-year rift and allows families to reunite.

Saudi Arabia and its allies the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt in June 2017 slapped a blockade on Qatar that included closing airspace to the country over claims it backed Islamist groups and was too close to Iran.

Qatar has always denied the charges.

The quartet agreed to lift the restrictions at a Gulf Cooperation Council summit last week in the Saudi desert city of Al-Ula, after a flurry of diplomatic activity by outgoing US President Donald Trump's administration.

The first commercial flight between Qatar and Saudi Arabia in three and a half years, a Qatar Airways service to Riyadh, took off from windswept Doha airport around 1100 GMT and was due to touch down at 1210 GMT.

Airport staff filmed aircraft taxiing on the runway in anticipation of the departure, according to an AFP correspondent on the ground.

Economy tickets for flight QR1164 aboard an Airbus A350 were on sale for around $650 one way to cover the roughly 600 kilometres (370 miles) between the neighbours' capitals.

- 'Air bridge' -

A Saudia Airlines plane will also fly Monday from Riyadh to Doha, departing the kingdom at 1340 GMT according to its online schedule, with services from Jeddah expected to start at a later date.

Just as the first flight to Riyadh was preparing to take off, Qatar Airways tweeted that services to Jeddah and Dammam would resume later in the week.

Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have both opened their airspace to Qatari aviation under the deal but there has been no word on when the first direct flights will take off.

Saudi Arabia's closure of its airspace has forced Qatar Airways aircraft to fly over Iran, Riyadh's arch-rival and long-time adversary of Washington, paying significant overflight fees to Tehran in the process.

The New York Times has reported that Qatar pays $100 million annually to fly over the Islamic republic, citing diplomatic sources.

US national security adviser Robert O'Brien said in November that allowing Qatari planes to fly over Saudi Arabia via an "air bridge" was a priority for the outgoing Trump administration.

The economic hit of the crisis, coinciding with low oil prices and the coronavirus downturn, was felt across the region.

Well-heeled Saudis were unable to visit Doha for holidays and long weekends while expats living in Qatar were unable to visit popular destinations like Dubai without tedious detours via Kuwait or Oman.