Saudi Arabia kicked off a world chess tournament Tuesday amid controversy over the kingdom denying visas to players from Israel and barring from attending.
Unlike Israel, players from Qatar and Iran, which have strained ties with Saudi Arabia, have been granted visas to participate in the tournament.
However, Qatari players will not compete in the championship because Qatar’s chess federation said organizers demanded that the players not display the Qatari flag during the competition.
A statement issued by the World Chess Federation said that visas for players from Iran and Qatar were secured. It made no mention of Israeli players.
“The fact that players from Iran and Qatar may decide not to participate, after consulting their own authorities, is clearly their own individual decision,” the statement said.
The statement added that Saudi authorities had proposed that for security reasons the Qatari players should play under the organization’s flag, but that the issue was resolved and the Qatar Chess Association was informed that their players would play under their own flag.
Israelis say Saudi Arabia ignored requests by Israeli players to obtain visas to participate in the tournament.
Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have diplomatic relations.
A Saudi official said Tuesday the kingdom was “maintaining its policy” on Israel.
Riyadh “has historically not had diplomatic ties with a specific country,” spokeswoman for the Saudi embassy in the US Fatimah Baeshen wrote on Twitter, without naming Israel.
Israeli officials have boasted in recent years of warming 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.
The Israel Chess Federation accused Saudi Arabia of misleading FIDE to qualify for hosting the tournament.
“All their previous statements were to the contrary,” spokesman Lior Aizenberg said.
Aizenberg said the Israelis were seeking financial compensation from FIDE for the seven players who “were professionally and financially damaged” by the saga.
In addition, they wanted assurances that FIDE would never repeat such conduct, and “every country hosting an international event will commit to hosting Israeli chess players, even if it’s an Arab state.”
Finally, the Israel Chess Federation was demanding FIDE competitions set to take place in Saudi Arabia over the next two years “be immediately canceled,” Aizenberg said in a statement.
This year’s tournament also comes nearly two years after the country’s top cleric ruled against against playing the board game.
Saudi Arabia’s top cleric, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al Sheikh, said in early 2016 that chess is “forbidden” in Islam because it wastes time and can lead to rivalry among players. Similarly, top Iranian clerics have also decried the game, saying it can lead to gambling, which is not permissible in Islam.
The mufti’s comments at the time led to an outcry on social media by young Saudis who defended the game as intellectually stimulating. Muslims, who introduced chess to Europe, have been playing the game since the 7th century in Persia.
Despite the mufti’s past criticism, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has pushed for greater social openings, including lifting a ban on women driving that goes into effect next year, allowing concerts and movies, and easing rules on gender segregation.
The tournament, called the King Salman World Rapid and Blitz Chess Championships, runs until Saturday. It includes around 240 players — both men and women — from 70 countries. There are 16 players from Saudi Arabia.
The world’s top three chess players from Norway, Armenia and Azerbaijan are participating in the tournament. There is also a women’s chess tournament taking place alongside the open championship.
Women are reportedly being allowed to wear dark blue or black formal trousers and high-necked blouses, avoiding Saudi rules of dress that require female residents and most visitors to wear loose-fitting, long robes known as “abayas.” Most Saudi women also cover their hair and face with veils.
James Dorsey, a Mideast scholar and senior fellow at the University of Singapore, said the kingdom was granted hosting rights by the World Chess Federation with a $1.5 million check that amounts to four times the federation’s standard annual fee.
“Literally everything involving Saudi Arabia’s hosting of a chess tournament is political,” he wrote in an analysis of the tournament. “Saudi Arabia’s visa policy is political as is the kingdom’s willingness to concede on women’s dress.”