Despite major campaign, Israeli delegation banned from competing
As the World Rapid and Blitz Chess Tournament kicks off Tuesday in Sunni Saudi Arabia, a delegation from its arch-rival Shiite Iran will partake, along with one from Qatar which Riyadh has blockaded. Conspicuously absent is the Israeli team, whose members were denied visas to enter the country; this, in contravention to tournament rules preventing discrimination based on nationality and despite a campaign by the World Chess Federation (FIDE) to reverse the decision.
The barring of the seven Israelis is a major disappointment for Jerusalem, which has hinted repeatedly at a rapprochement with the House of Saud primarily based on the shared interest of curbing Tehran’s regional ambitions and potential nuclearization. It also seemingly contradicts Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s stated commitment to modernizing the kingdom while adopting a more moderate form of Islam.
Zvika Barkai, Chairperson of The Israeli Chess Federation, told The Media Line that Saudi Arabia “foremost wanted to host the tournament in order to become closer to the west and the royals put a lot of money into the event.” He further suggested that the Saudi rulership excluded the Israelis, despite improving political ties with the Jewish state, because its citizens have not been conditioned for any potential “normalization.”
For his part, Israel Gelfer, Vice President of FIDE Israel, contended that Saudi Arabia made a “political decision” and never intended to allow the Israeli delegation to compete. “They are very proud that they granted visas for Qatar and Iran, but they didn’t even mention Israel,” he explained to The Media Line. Gelfer previously revealed that the Saudis did not even respond to Israel’s inquiries into the matter.
In a statement issued late Monday night, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry attributed its move to the lack of formal relations with Israel. “Related to the purported politicization of the International Chess Tournament hosted by Riyadh: the Kingdom has allowed the participation of all citizens. The exception is whereby KSA has historically not had diplomatic ties with a specific country—thus has maintained its policy,” a spokesperson wrote on Twitter.
According to Barkai, timing also may have played a role in Riyadh’s decision-making process, given the instability in the region following U.S. President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In his estimation, the Saudis simply could not be seen hosting Israelis while the situation remains combustible.
But Gelfer described any such justification as “an excuse” and instead blamed FIDE for permitting Riyadh to hold firm on the issue. He emphasized to The Media Line that the contract signed between the governing body and Saudi Arabia is “illegal,” as FIDE’s regulations clearly stipulate that a tournament organizer cannot withhold visas to those who qualify to participate.
Nevertheless, Israeli chess players previously have been barred from events, including the 2001 World Chess Championship in Libya. Competitors from Lebanon, Syria and Iran likewise have standing boycotts against Israeli opponents.
A notable exception was in 2013 when the Israeli chess team competed in Abu Dhabi. Earlier this year, an Israeli delegation participated in a chess tournament in Muslim-majority Malaysia, where its players shook hands with their local counterparts.
Israeli competitors, in general, often face difficulties in the Middle East due to hostility towards the Jewish state. Most recently, the UAE was widely criticized for playing the International Judo Federation’s anthem—and not the Israeli one—during a medal ceremony after judoka Tal Flicker won gold at a competition.
In this respect, a critical mass may have been reached as Israel is threatening to take a stand. Gelfer told The Media Line that he will “immediately demand the cancellation” of FIDE’s multi-year contract with Saudi Arabia to host the World Rapid and Blitz Chess Tournament. Israeli chess officials also said they are considering taking legal action against the international federation.
(Daniella P. Cohen is a Student Intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)