TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — A plane carrying Israelis home from the Indian Ocean island nation of Seychelles made an emergency landing in Saudi Arabia before flying back to Tel Aviv on Tuesday, in what Israel praised as a sign of goodwill as Washington works to establish formal relations between the two countries.
The Air Seychelles flight carrying 128 passengers was forced to land Monday because of an electrical malfunction. Israel’s Foreign Ministry said the passengers spent the night at an airport hotel in Jeddah and were flown back by the airline on an alternate plane.
Passengers described a frightening stretch of time as an acrid burnt smell filled the cabin and the pilot came over the intercom to say the plane would be forced to make an emergency stop in Saudi Arabia, a kingdom with which Israel has no air links or diplomatic ties.
With dozens trapped on board and the plane idling on the tarmac, tension grew, passengers said, while Israeli officials scrambled to figure out what to do. Soon Saudi security forces escorted the Israelis to a hotel.
“It was very scary,” passenger Mayama Stahl recalled as she streamed out of Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport later Tuesday with the dozens of others, some seemingly surprised by the swarm of reporters, photographers and party balloons that greeted them. “But we were all welcomed very well (by the Saudis). … We were very excited to see that we were OK and safe.”
The passengers told The Associated Press their experience in Jeddah was pleasant, with some Saudis even greeting them in Hebrew.
Tracking data from FlightRadar24.com showed the Air Seychelles Airbus A320, flight No. HM22, diverted to Jeddah on Monday night while it was over the Red Sea. The airline did not respond to a request for comment.
Another Air Seychelles A320 flew to Jeddah on Tuesday from Dubai to pick up the travelers and carry them on to Tel Aviv. In 2022, Saudi Arabia lifted its ban on Israeli overflights during a visit by President Joe Biden to the kingdom.
Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have official ties, although they have developed strong but informal connections over recent years over their shared concerns about Iran’s growing influence in the region. After Israel and four Arab states signed normalization deals in 2020 under the former Trump administration, Biden has been working to strike a similar agreement with Saudi Arabia.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has made an agreement with Saudi Arabia a major goal, seized on the incident to highlight the potential for improved ties.
“I greatly appreciate the warm attitude of the Saudi authorities to the Israeli passengers whose flight was in distress,” he said in a video recorded in Hebrew with Arabic subtitles, as he gestured toward a map of the region behind him. “I greatly appreciate the good neighborliness.”
There was no immediate reaction in Saudi Arabia.
A normalization deal with Saudi Arabia, the most powerful and wealthy Arab state, has the potential to reshape the region and boost Israel’s standing in historic ways. But brokering such a deal is a heavy lift as the kingdom has said it won’t officially recognize Israel before a resolution to the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Saudis are also apparently seeking defense guarantees and access to American nuclear technology.
Extracting any major concessions to the Palestinians from Israel will be difficult under Israel’s current government, which is made up of ultranationalists who support expanding Jewish settlements on land the Palestinians seek for a state and oppose Palestinian independence.
Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Isabel DeBre in Jerusalem contributed to this report.