World chess tournament in Saudi Arabia keeps Israel out

Politics cast shadow over the first ever international chess tournament in Saudi Arabia which began on Tuesday as Riyadh did not issue visas to players from Israel.

Israel Chess Federation (ICF) has sought compensation from World Chess Federation (WCF) who organised the three-day King Salman World Rapid and Blitz Chess Championships drawing 236 players from 70 countries.

ICF spokesman Lior Aizenberg said besides providing them financial compensation, WCF should “immediately” cancel future competitions scheduled to take place in Saudi Arabia. Organising world tournaments by excluding Israel is not acceptable, Aizenberg said.

Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have official diplomatic relations.

Leaving politics aside, the tournament is significant as the game was declared “forbidden” in Islam by Saudi Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdelaziz al-Sheikh in 2016. Such a view was natural for a kingdom that strictly follows the shariah.

But rules are changing and Riyadh’s move to host the chess tournament is seen as part of the kingdom’s Vision 2030 plan launched by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to open up the country to international entertainment and investments and diversify its oil-dependent economy.

Turki al-Sheikh, chairman of the Board of Directors of the General Authority for Sport, described the championship under way as a source of “pride” for Saudis.

WCF hailed it as “historic” since female chess players are not be required to wear the ‘hijab’ or Islamic veil.

Some 40 international judges are supervising the tournament which saw a shock defeat in the first round. Norwegian world champion Magnus Carlsen lost to Chinese player Bu Xiangzhi, the Saudi Press agency (SPA) reported.