Middle East

Saudi chess tournament kicks off amid tensions after Israeli players' visas denied

The Saudi world chess tournament started with controversy after Israeli players were denied visas to compete in the championship.

Israeli players have been denied visas to participate in a speed chess championship hosted by Saudi Arabia, a vice president of the World Chess Federation (FIDE) said.

Seven Israeli players had requested visas for the tournament that started on Tuesday. The tournament was seen as part of Saudi Arabia's process of opening up to the rest of the world.

It would have marked the first time Saudi Arabia had publicly hosted Israelis as the Gulf state does not recognise Israel and there are no formal ties between them.

FIDE vice president Israel Gelfer, whose secretariat is based in Athens, told Reuters in an email that visas for the Israeli players "have not been issued and will not be issued".

He said the tournament would go ahead as planned. It was not immediately clear if other delegations had been excluded but players from Qatar had suggested they may have been rejected.

The decision did not sit well with English Chess Federation president Dominic Lawson who said FIDE should not award Saudi Arabia another tournament if the same incident is repeated.

"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," the statement read according to The Telegraph UK.

"Imagine if the Saudis had bid for the FIFA World Cup and then barred an Israeli team that had qualified - that is an exact analogy.

"The FIDE motto is Gens Una Sumus, and so this action makes a mockery of FIDE’s proud claim that chess breaks down the barriers between nations. It is shameful."

In November, Chess Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura hit out against FIDE for awarding Saudi Arabia the tournament.

"To organise a chess tournament in a country where basic human rights aren't valued is horrible. Chess is a game where all different sorts of people can come together, not a game in which people are divided because of their religion or country of origin," he wrote on Twitter.

Double world chess champion Anna Muzychuk has refused to defend her titles in the chess tournament after revealing her disappointment she would have to wear a an abaya or be accompanied around the streets because she is a woman.

The 27-year-old Ukranian champion said despite the lure of the prize money, she would not "play by someone's rules" and be made to feel unequal.

"In a few days I am going to lose two World Champion titles - one by one. Just because I decided not to go to Saudi Arabia," she wrote on Facebook.

"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.

"Exactly one year ago I won these two titles and was about the happiest person in the chess world but this time I feel really bad. I am ready to stand for my principles and skip the event, where in five days I was expected to earn more than I do in a dozen of events combined."

Saudi Arabia's Center for International Communication said in a statement more than 180 players would participate but did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Israel Chess Federation spokesman Lior Aizenberg said efforts were still being made "by various parties" to ensure the Israeli players took part.

"The event is not a world championship if they prevent chess players from several countries from taking part," Aizenberg told Reuters.

"Every chess player should have the right to participate in an event on the basis of professional criteria, regardless of their passports, their place of issue or the stamps they bear."

Aizenberg said FIDE should ensure Israeli players could compete in international events and that the Israeli federation was considering all options, including legal action and holding an international competition in Israel for players excluded from the Saudi match.

FIDE had said in November it was undertaking a "huge effort" to ensure all players were granted visas.