Chess tournament in Saudi Arabia under fire from Israeli, female players

Participants at the first international chess competition held in Saudi Arabia on December 26.

Story highlights

  • Host of a world chess tournament is being criticized for country's treatment of women
  • Israeli chess players were not granted visas to attend this week's tournament

(CNN)Chess tournaments, for better or worse, don't usually command international headlines.

But that hasn't proved true for the World Chess Championships in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, which has become the focus of debates this week on Israeli-Saudi relations and women's rights in the country.
    On Saturday, one of the best women's chess players in the world, Anna Muzychuk of Ukraine, said she and her sister would skip the tournament as a protest of the country's treatment of women as "secondary creature(s)."
    Separately, Israeli officials criticized Saudi Arabia and the World Chess Federation, known as FIDE, on Tuesday after seven Israeli competitors were not granted visas to attend the tournament.
    "Sports and competition should serve as a bridge between groups and nations," Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a statement.
    "It is an accepted principle in competitive sports -- and part of FIDE regulations -- that hosts of international competitions must permit all competitors to participate. The Saudi refusal to provide visas to the Israeli team is a violation of this principle and a violation of sportsmanship."
    The World Chess Championships is one of the largest chess tournaments of the year, with a total prize money of $2 million, according to FIDE.

    Israelis denied visas

    Saudi Arabia and FIDE agreed to loosen the dress code for the event and allow women to wear high-necked white blouses rather than a hijab or abaya, a loose-fitting robe worn by some Muslim women. That dress code was a first for any sporting event in Saudi Arabia, the organization said.
    FIDE also said that it had made "ground-breaking special arrangements" to issue visas to chess players from Iran and Qatar, two countries at odds with Saudi Arabia politically. The statement did not mention Israel, however.
    "As everybody clearly understands from the above, FIDE and the Saudi organisers are always ready to welcome any participant," FIDE said. "FIDE's principle is that its World Chess Championships are a vehicle for promoting peace and development of friendship amongst all nations."
    But Zvika Barkai, the Chairman of The Israeli Chess Federation, said that statement was "not only an insult to simple logic but also a shame for FIDE."
    Barkai particularly took aim at FIDE claiming to welcome "any participant" even as it did not allow Israeli chess players to attend.
    "This sentence means that in the eyes of FIDE Israeli players are not included in the list of 'any participant,'" Barkai said.