Opening Our Skies to the Saudis?
The kingdom is still a blind spot of American foreign policy.


Elise Jordan


The goal of this “Open Skies” agreement is to prohibit governments from setting ticket prices, and from regulating how and when specific airlines can fly specific routes. This appears to be a positive move — bringing free-market principles to the international aviation industry is ostensibly a good thing. Further, the State Department assured me that it’s a blanket policy that the United States offers to any interested country — although Iran and North Korea apparently don’t make the cut, we’ve signed 103 Open Skies treaties with all sorts of countries, often with very positive results. An Open Skies agreement with the Netherlands, for example, created some 2,000 jobs and over $120 million in yearly revenue for American airports. But Amsterdam and Rotterdam are not Mecca and Medina, and the agreement with the Saudis has already created controversy. 

A few months ago, Allan Mendelsohn, a former Clinton administration State Department Open Skies negotiator, began a quiet campaign, opposing the signing of any such agreement with Riyadh. He sent a series of letters to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, asking an important theoretical question: If Saudi Arabia had a visa policy that denied African  Americans entrance, would the State Department still make the deal? His main objection was that Jewish Americans aren’t allowed into Saudi Arabia, and neither are Americans with Israeli stamps on their passports. (Nor, for that matter, are unaccompanied women, or Americans carrying Bibles or wearing crosses around their necks.) “The agreement is a gift to the Saudis,” Mendelsohn, a Washington transportation attorney, told me. “There’s absolutely no reason for it.” 

So, if it is so one-sided, why are we doing it? The State Department claims that the previous agreement with Saudi Arabia limited Saudi government airlines to only ten direct flights a week to the United States, whereas the new agreement would allow Saudi Airlines to schedule dozens more flights into the United States. Aviation experts I spoke to considered that this would be a boon for the Saudi government run airlines, but likely wouldn’t much benefit American airlines since there is not high demand for flights to Saudi Arabia. Regulatory economist James Reitzes, from the Brattle Group, explained: “There are a fair amount of advantages that can accrue for Saudi Arabian airlines. I am skeptical whether  U.S. airlines are going to say, now that this market is open, we should start flying there.”   

Nonetheless, the executive agreement is likely to be signed later this year or in early 2012. Saudis have already added new flights to the U.S., a State Department official who worked on the negotiation told me. In return, we’re asking almost nothing  It remains highly unlikely that the Kingdom is going to open up entrance requirements — let alone tourism — in the near future. In fact, the State Department warns prospective travelers of the religious and gender persecution they may face if they do venture to the Kingdom.  American women must be met by a male “sponsor” on arrival — and are subject to arrest by the religious police for association “with a male to whom she is not related.” We may have Open Skies agreements with unlikely tourist destinations, such as Pakistan and Nigeria, but those countries at least allow all Americans entry.  

The question remains: Why are we giving Saudi Arabians more freedom to come to the United States without asking for reciprocal measures? It looks an awful lot like diplomacy for the sake of diplomacy, a way of showering rewards on an ally that’s rich in oil money and short on human rights. But in the long run, policies like this — where we give and get nothing in return — only serve to bestow credibility on Saudi Arabia’s brutal status quo of gender apartheid, Islamic fundamentalism, and the modern-day slavery of human trafficking. As the State Department notes in the 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report: “The Government of Saudi Arabia does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so.”

Open skies, perhaps, but certainly not very friendly.