Saudi ban on Israeli chess players underscores limits of Gulf relations

Saudi ban on Israeli chess players underscores limits of Gulf relations

Seven competitors barred from international tournament were the latest pawns in a larger geopolitical game

Judah Ari Gross

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Israeli athletes have a long history of being discriminated against by Arab countries. They are denied entry to them or forbidden from flying the Israeli flag and playing the national anthem during competitions; opponents forfeit matches against them or refuse to shake their hands.

It is a practice often described as an attempt to avoid “normalization” with Israel, and meant to show solidarity with the Palestinian cause.

The most recent victims of this tactic are seven Israeli chess players who were denied visas to Saudi Arabia for an international competition that kicked off on Tuesday.

But while Sunni Muslim countries publicly snub Israeli athletes, behind closed doors their officials are prepared to cooperate with the Jewish state, swapping intelligence and coordinating on the best ways to counter their mutual enemy: Iran.

Israeli soldiers stand guard next to an Iron Dome defense system in central Israel on November 14, 2017. (AFP/Jack Guez)

There is also likely some direct or indirect sharing of missile defense methods, a field in which Israel is a world leader owing to repeated attacks by Hamas and Hezbollah over the years. It is also technology on which Saudi Arabia is increasingly relying, as Iran-backed Yemeni rebels have begun launching rockets at Riyadh.

Israel, for its part, seems to be pushing for these warming ties to be brought into the light. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior officials make frequent references to them, pointing to them as proof that Israel can improve its relationships with Arab countries without the need for progress in peace talks with Palestinians.

But those feelings aren’t being reciprocated in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and other Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East, and probably won’t be for the foreseeable future, according to Joshua Teitelbaum, a professor at Bar-Ilan University and senior research associate at its Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

Commenting on the chess spat, Teitelbaum, whose work focuses on Saudi Arabia, said “These gestures are important to Israel, but less important to the Saudis.”

Dore Gold and former Saudi government adviser Anwar Eshki shake hands in Washington DC, June 4, 2015. (Debby Communications Group)

While Israel would undoubtedly prefer its relationships with Sunni states to be fully public, the covert ties still have enough value to keep Israel cooperating with Gulf nations. And so long as that’s the case, those nations have no real need to openly embrace Israel, action their citizens would fiercely oppose.

“Why should they buy the cow, when they get the milk for free?” Teitelbaum quipped. (In terms of parallels, this reporter prefers comparing Israel to the paramour forced to slink out through a back window after a tryst — but I digress.)

Teitelbaum noted that the kingdom is currently in the midst of a significant internal shake-up and is dealing with a corruption scandal, proxy wars in Yemen and Syria and an ongoing spat with Qatar.

“The last thing they need is trouble by inviting in the Israelis,” the professor said. “They have more important things on their plate right now.”

Even as Israel gets cozier with Arab governments and militaries, the Jewish state remains deeply unpopular among their populations.

A 2016 study by the Middle East-focused Zogby Research Services found that 100 percent of over 1,000 people surveyed in Saudi Arabia held an unfavorable view of Israel, and 100 percent also said it was not important for their country to have good relations with Israel.

Those polled also said that the “occupation of Palestine” was the “greatest obstacle to peace and stability in the Middle East,” more so than a lack of democratic governments, the Islamic State group or Iranian and American interference in the region.

Israel fared slightly better in the United Arab Emirates, where only 99% of the people surveyed said it was not important for their country to have good relations with Jerusalem. Though there too, 100% held an unfavorable view of Israel.

In a statement about the decision to deny visas to the Israeli players, a spokeswoman for the Saudi government wouldn’t even refer to Israel by name, calling it instead “a specific country” with which Riyadh “has historically not had diplomatic ties.”

Former Mossad chief Efraim Haley (L), Prince Turki bin Faisal al-Saud, former chief of Saudi intelligence (C) and Michèle Flournoy, former US undersecretary of defense for policy (R) talk with the Israel Policy Forum’s executive director David Halperin during a panel discussion at the Temple Emanu-El Streicker Center in New York City on October 22, 2017 (Screen capture)

In the future, Teitelbaum cautiously hazarded, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states could allow for more subtle signs of rapprochement: Letting Israeli planes fly over their territories or allowing current — not retired — officials meet publicly with current — not retired
Israeli officials.

But such low-level actions will likely be the extent of Israel’s public relationship with these Arab countries, barring significant progress on the Palestinian front, he said.

Real people too

While the case of the seven chess players offered a glimpse into the limitations of Israel’s cooperation with Gulf states, it also involved competitors who are more than pawns (pardon the pun) in some larger geopolitical game — but real people who were denied the possibility to test their abilities against their peers from around the world, and to win substantial prizes.

Participants attend the King Salman World Rapid and Blitz Championships, the first international chess competition held in Saudi Arabia, in the capital Riyadh on December 26, 2017. (AFP/STRINGER)

Lior Aizenberg, a spokesperson for the Israel Chess Federation, told The Times of Israel that his organizations was preparing to take a number of actions against the World Chess Federation (FIDE), which is responsible for the tournament.

The event, 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.

In a letter to FIDE, the Israeli federation demanded financial compensation for its players for “professional and financial damages,” called for events planned in Saudi Arabia over the next two years to be canceled and asked that future host countries be required to admit players from all countries.

And the Israeli club was not alone in expressing anger over the ban.

Dominic Lawson, president of the English Chess Federation, told the Telegraph newspaper: “This contract for the World Rapid Chess Championship was signed on the understanding that the Saudis would ensure that Israeli masters would be able to play.

“The fact that this has not happened means FIDE should refuse to award further such events to the Kingdom, despite the generosity of the Saudi prize fund.”

Norwegian chess player Magnus Carlsen (R) attends the King Salman World Rapid and Blitz Championships, the first international chess competition held in Saudi Arabia, in the capital Riyadh on December 26, 2017. (AFP/STRINGER)

Lawson noted that the World Chess Federation’s motto is “Gens Una Sumus,” a latin phrase meaning we are all one tribe.

“So this action makes a mockery of FIDE’s proud claim that chess breaks down the barriers between nations. It is shameful,” he said.

In addition, Israel’s Aizenberg said the Israel Chess Federation was planning to hold its own international competition and had already reached out to a number of countries and individual players who have expressed interest in taking part.

The competition, the date of which will be announced soon, will be known as the “Keep Politics Out of the Sport” tournament, Aizenberg said.

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