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How an airline alliance just might do what politicians can’t…

How an airline alliance just might do what politicians can’t…

Just as the PingPong diplomacy worked for China and US in the 70s, retired navy man Abdulateef Al-Mulhim hopes Saudia’s entry into Sky alliance will aid in Middle East-global diplomacy.

July 17, 2011 3:11 by

On April 6, 1971, the 31st World Table Tennis Championship was in full swing in Nagoya, Japan. At that time there were no diplomatic relations between the US and China. They were at odds and were in fact waging a war on Vietnamese soil and Laos’ and Cambodian airspaces. There was no hope for a breakthrough. Top diplomats on both sides didn’t know what would be a proper opening line to bring about a thaw in ties.


However, the most unlikely opening line came from young Americans who didn’t even know what is politics. They were good athletes in their schools and knew how to play “ping pong”. They provided the breakthrough in Nagoya. The American team was invited to play a game in China after the championship in Japan. America, till then, was a hated country by the Chinese. But, in politics, why not try something if you have nothing to lose.

The American “ping pong” team arrived in China in 1971 and were the first Americans to set foot on Chinese land since 1949 and President Richard Nixon visited China on Feb. 21, 1972 to seal the Ping-Pong diplomacy.

Before that, the only man who wanted to land in China was Gen. Douglas MacArthur. But, he was planning to be in the company of more than a million American soldiers. He was sacked by President Harry Truman. The president knew war would solve nothing. In wars, even the winner will lose a lot of men, women and money. Despite the initial moves that brought about the Americans and Chinese together, the US-China relations didn’t materialize till 1979. The bid to make a breakthrough in 1971 was worth it. Today, the US and China are the biggest trade partners.


Now, what about the Middle-East conflict which has been going on from before 1948? The Arabs and Israelis have tried everything, wars and peace initiatives. There were open negotiations and secret negotiations. There were endless meetings in Jerusalem, Cairo, Camp David, Oslo, Madrid and many more cities. Nothing worked except the Camp David Accord. And the American president at that time was from the State of Georgia, where everything was named after the tasty fruit called peach. The president was Jimmy Carter.

I would like to digress here a bit, by asking the question which airline Carter prefers to fly? A will answer it by saying, it’s an airline called Delta Air Lines. It is the largest carrier in the world and is based in President Carter’s state, Atlanta Georgia. I flew this airline so many times that I achieved the frequent flier medallion in less than one year in 1993. I loved this airline, I wanted it to launch its direct flight from Atlanta to the Gulf region using a Saudi destination. It chose Dubai and soon it will resume its flights to Tel Aviv, which was stopped during the Palestinian intifada. Airlines are the most visible ambassadors for any country.


In the past few months there was a talk about bringing back the Saudi Peace Initiative and at the same time we heard that Saudi Arabian Airlines (Saudia) announced that in 2012 it will join the airline alliance, the SkyTeam. Now, Delta Air Lines became a political issue. When Saudia planned to join the Sky Team, I knew for sure that there will be a lot of questions asked about Israeli passport holders. I wrote an article in the Arabic newspaper (Alyoum) titled Saudia and the forbidden passport. Soon, I heard about some Jewish organizations in the US that had sent petitions to Delta Air Lines’ CEO to stop the admission of Saudia into the Sky Team. I was hoping that those organizations would give Saudia a chance, and had expected Jewish organizations to be more positive about the SkyTeam alliance.

Maybe the Middle East conflict will be solved by an unlikely team consisting of pilots, stewardesses and a Delta Boeing 787 dreamliner.

Maybe things will not work out the first year, but things could change for the better. It took the US and China eight years after the famous “ping pong” match in 1971 before both American and Chinese citizens could be seen at each other airports in 1979. We saw Arab, Israeli and other political figures fly back and forth to no avail in order to solve the Middle East crisis. The Middle East crisis became the biggest dilemma for any American president, UN secretary-general and European Union’s top politicians. I think the Arabs and Israelis should take any chance for peace. And if this chance is taken, then the future generations could live in harmony and it would also give people and governments a chance to develop education and health care systems. It takes one single day of war to destroy years of building.

Today, we are seeing more unrest and destructions in the area. Why can’t we give an airline alliance a chance to fix things politicians and military have failed to do.

Abdulateef Al-Mulhim is a commodore (retired), Royal Saudi Navy

Photo from Paramount Pictures © 2004

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