Saudi Arabia Blocks Israel’s Chess Team From World Championships
Posted December 26, 2017 6:19 p.m. EST
Israel has been left out of the World Chess Championships, which kicked off Tuesday in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, after its players were unable to obtain the visas they needed to attend.
In a statement posted online Tuesday, Fatimah S. Baeshen, a spokeswoman for the Saudi ambassador to the United States, blamed a lack of formal relations between the two countries for the denial.
Saudi Arabia “has historically not had diplomatic ties with a specific country — thus has maintained its policy,” she wrote. “Israel is not fielding a team at the World Chess Championships.”
The decision came as a surprise to the Israeli team, especially after a Sunday announcement that visas had been issued to players from Qatar and Iran, two countries with poor relations with Saudi Arabia.
“Not only do we want to participate in this event, we want to leave politics out of it and out of sports altogether,” Lior Aizenberg, a spokesman for the Israeli Chess Federation, said. “The relationships between countries should not be part of international events such as championships.”
Aizenberg said that Saudi Arabia’s failure to issue visas to his team was a violation of the rules of the World Chess Federation, also known by its French acronym, FIDE, and that the seven Israeli players who had planned to attend were now seeking financial compensation from the federation.
In a letter sent Tuesday to the federation, Zvika Barkai, the chairman of the Israeli group, repeated the demand for compensation and called on the federation to cancel a contract with Saudi Arabia to host the event next year. Barkai also took the organization to task for failing to mention Israel in a Sunday statement about the Qatari and Iranian visas.
The global chess organization did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment. In an earlier statement promoting the event, the federation said that it had raised concerns about visas for its competitors but that it had not been advised that “any player will not be able to participate.”
The federation also said that female participants would not have to wear head coverings, “a first for any sporting event in Saudi Arabia.”
The tournament ends with a closing ceremony Saturday. More than $2 million in prizes is set to be awarded to contestants, nearly 3.5 times the amount doled out at the last competition.
Even before the visa denials, the tournament — officially known as the King Salman Rapid & Blitz World Championships 2017 — had drawn protests.
In early November, Hikaru Nakamura, the third-ranked chess player in the United States, said it was a “horrible” decision to let Saudi Arabia host the event.
And last week, Anna Muzychuk of Ukraine, one of the top women’s speed chess players, said she and her sister, Mariya, were skipping the event altogether, in protest of Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women.
“In a few days I am going to lose two World Champion titles — one by one,” she wrote in a Facebook post. “Just because I decided not to go to Saudi Arabia. Not to play by someone’s rules, not to wear abaya, not to be accompanied getting outside, and altogether not to feel myself a secondary creature.”
The controversies over the chess tournament come amid a push by Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 32-year-old favorite son of King Salman, 81, to loosen Saudi Arabia’s social mores. He has done so while leading a broad crackdown against corruption that has helped him amass unprecedented power.
In 2016, Saudi Arabia’s top cleric issued a fatwa, or religious decree, forbidding playing chess, calling the game “the work of Satan” and comparing it to gambling. At the time, it was unclear whether the government would act on his pronouncement.