Don't Blame Delta for Saudi Foreign Policy

The Rabbi Jason Miller is not happy with Delta Air Lines. In a poorly-written article published in the Huffington Post, Miller bemoans that Saudi Arabian Airlines will soon be a member of the SkyTeam Alliance, the airline group that Delta is part of. In a call to action to both Jews and Gentiles, he urges a boycott of Delta, stating, "I would have a hard time flying with Delta knowing they are collaborating with the discriminatory government of Saudi Arabia."

What poppycock. Or is it?

Here's the bottom line: members of SkyTeam (14 airlines including Air France and KLM) voted to allow Saudi Arabian Airlines into the alliance--not Delta alone. Delta does not control Saudi Arabia's foreign or visa policy. Delta has no plans to fly to Saudi Arabia and will not be blocking Jews from boarding any flights.

For those disappointed that Delta did not "do the right" thing and exit SkyTeam because Saudi Arabian Airlines is now in, where were they supposed to go? OneWorld perhaps? Cathay Pacific, British Airways, and Iberia all fly to Saudi Arabia. Maybe Star Alliance? Lufthansa, British Midland, Turkish, and Swiss fly to Saudi Arabia. Even, Air France, a member SkyTeam, has flown to Saudi Arabia for years. But I don't see folks outraged about that...or about the fact that the U.S. government allows Saudi Arabian Airlines to fly into Washington, New York, Orlando, and Houston.

On the contrary, Delta has already pledged to do more than they should feel obligated to do. On the Delta blog, the airline revealed that:

We don’t intend to codeshare or share any reciprocal benefits (such as frequent flier benefits) with Saudi Air.

What's the point of having Saudi Air in SkyTeam if there will not be reciprocal frequent flyer benefits and codeshare agreements? That's the whole point of airline alliances. I think such abstention is unnecessary and counterproductive, but I hope those attacking Delta are taking note--through this policy decision Delta is taking a stand on this issue.

And let's be clear: Saudi Arabia does not have a policy that prohibits Jews from entering the country. Jews enter all the time. Sadly, Saudi Arabia does not recognize or have diplomatic relations with Israel and generally will not issue a visa for anyone who has an Israeli stamp in their passport or an Israeli passport. The difference is only one of degree, but it is worth mentioning.

Without going too far off on a political tangent, I do find the whole Arab-Israeli debate quite bemusing. When I was in Dubai earlier this week I chuckled that all the maps show Palestine with no hint of Israel and stories concerning the Palestinian people in UAE and Omani newspapers always refer to Jerusalem as Occupied Jerusalem. I've got news for you folks: Israel is staying put. Yet, for those who want to unequivocally condemn the Saudis (and make no mistake--they should be condemned for their failure to recognize and work with Israel), it is wise to remember that the Saudi Arabian government has been a valuable ally to the United States in a region where the U.S. has few allies, many U.S. companies do business in the Kingdom, and thousands of U.S. troops are stationed in military bases in Saudi Arabia. That is the irony of statecraft.

There is a difference, however, in this situation that I am willing to concede. Saudi Arabian Airlines will be the first Middle Eastern carrier (other than the more liberal Royal Jordanian) in one of the three alliances. Other airlines with "anti-Israel" policies like Emirates, Gulf, Kuwait, and Qatar have lose affiliations with many airlines, but are not part of any alliance. Considering that Saudi Arabian Airlines is state-run, the Saudi government now has a seat at SkyTeam's table.

This is troublesome not merely because of the Kingdom's Israel policy, but because of Saudi Arabia's poor record on the treatment of women (women, for example, are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia). That to me is a far bigger concern than the squabble with Israel.

The issue comes down to whether SkyTeam and Delta are tacitly accepting or even condoning Saudi Arabian policy by inviting them to be the part of the team. Dismissing the senseless rantings that Delta hates Jews, I think a reasonable argument can be made that the answer yes.

Yet even conceding this point,  I see no lasting value in isolating Saudi Arabian Airlines and other Middle Eastern carriers for the choices of their government, even if the government and airline are one and the same. Just like the isolation of Cuba for the last 50 years has failed to bring about meaningful democratic reform to the island nation, I fail to see how boycotting Saudi Arabia will improve the problems that we all agree are prevalent in the Kingdom. On the contrary, I think engagement through avenues that showcase competing values, more easily accessible through air travel, is key to bringing reform to a society that is backwards in so many ways.

And if were are going to start boycotting carriers from countries with human rights issues, what about all those Chinese airlines that will be vital to the future of each the three alliances? Or the Russian ones? Again, statecraft is just not that easy and simply labelling Saudi Arabia "bad" does nothing to encourage change.

I fear this post has gone astray, but the bottom line is that Delta is not responsible for the foreign policy of any government and should not be taking any heat for the fact that Saudi Arabian Airlines will provide a valuable link to the Middle East for thousands of travelers loyal to the SkyTeam alliance. We should all be rooting for change in Saudi Arabia, particularly in the area of rights for women and religious minorities, but disengagement and isolation is not the way to encourage these changes.


Hyrum June 27, 2011 at 04:33 pm

Good points all, but there is one incorrect fact. You state that "Saudi Arabian Airlines will be the first Middle Eastern carrier in one of the three alliances." However, the flag carrier of Saudi Arabia's neighbor to the northwest, Royal Jordanian, is a member of oneworld, having joined in 2007.

Thought you'd like to know.

@Hyrum--Of course you are correct. Thanks for catching that!

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