A world chess official appeared to chide his Saudi Arabian hosts Monday for barring Israeli players, after an intense campaign to allow them into a major tourney fell short.
Israeli and international chess officials said Sunday that seven Israeli players had been denied visas to take part in the King Salman World Blitz and Rapid Championships in Riyadh, which kick off Tuesday.
During a ceremony opening the event Monday night, World Chess Federation Deputy President Georgios Makropoulos said he hoped the kingdom would allow in all players next time.
“We would like to see the next event, here, as King Salman Peace & Friendship World Rapid & Blitz Chess Championships. Where everybody will be welcomed,” he said in unprepared remarks to Saudi sports official Turki bin Abdel Muhsin Al-Asheikh according to the federation, which goes by the acronym FIDE.
“I am certain that Saudi Arabia can send a strong message for peace and friendship around the world and we are here with my colleagues to help. We are ready to meet with you or your people in the next days, to see how to proceed with the next steps,” he added.
In November, Makropolous said FIDE was “making a huge effort to assure that all players get their visas.”
However on Sunday, FIDE vice president Israel Geller said visas for the seven Israeli players would not be issued, despite substantial efforts made to persuade the Saudis to grant the visas.
He said the Saudis had never responded to the Israelis’ request. “It’s an old system. They simply didn’t answer,” he said.
Saudi Arabia defended its decision to bar the Israeli players from the chess tournament late Monday, saying the decision was based on a lack of diplomatic ties.
Without mentioning Israel, Saudi Foreign Ministry spokesperson Fatimah Baeshen said Riyadh had barred players from countries that do not have a diplomatic relationship with the kingdom.
“Related to the purported politicization of the International Chess Tournament hosted by Riyadh: the Kingdom has allowed the participation of all citizens.The exception is whereby KSA has historically not had diplomatic ties with a specific country-thus has maintained its policy,” she wrote on Twitter.
Israeli officials have boasted in recent years of growing ties with Saudi Arabia over shared concerns regarding Iranian hegemony in the region. However, the relationship has remained covert, with Riyadh officially disavowing any plans to establish ties before a peace deal with the Palestinians is reached.
Earlier Monday, FIDE said Saudi Arabia had agreed to grant visas to players from Iran and Qatar after talks, despite Riyadh having broken off ties with both countries.
“As everybody clearly understands from the above, FIDE and the Saudi organisers are always ready to welcome any participant,” a statement from the chess federation said.
Israel Chess Federation spokesperson Lior Aizenberg said Sunday the Israelis were holding out hope for a last minute reversal before the tournament kicks off on Tuesday. “We hope and believe that FIDE … and the Saudis will reach an agreement regarding the participation of the Israeli chess players,” he said in a message Sunday night.
Israeli chess officials said they were considering taking legal action against FIDE for allowing the tournament to go on while barring them.
“It is most outrageous that FIDE allows a state to agree to host an international championship, without promising to accept all athletes, regardless of their country of origin,” Aizenberg said.
Israeli athletes often face difficulties when competing in the Middle East or against Middle Eastern countries, due to hostility towards the Jewish state.
Gulf countries have allowed Israelis to compete, but without the Israeli flag or other symbols.
In October, the UAE was criticized after Israeli Tal Flicker won gold at a judo tournament but was forced to silently mouth the Israeli national anthem as the International Judo Federation’s anthem played instead.
UAE officials later apologized for a judoka refusing to shake hands with an Israeli athlete and reportedly said Israeli symbols would be allowed in the future.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.