JERUSALEM — Saudi Arabia is hosting an international chess tournament this week, and the fact that female players are permitted to play without the traditional head covering is a first — and a nod to the kingdom’s attempts at modernization and reform.
But such steps appear to extend only so far.
Seven Israeli professional chess players have been prevented from participating in the World Chess Federation tournament after the kingdom denied them visas — a sign that even the most staid of sporting events in the kingdom are still tinged with politics.
The players' exclusion indicates that recent comments by Israeli political leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, over warming ties with Sunni Arab states might be overly optimistic.
It also suggests that despite Israel and Saudi Arabia sharing a fear that Iran, their common enemy, is attempting to increase its influence in the region — the two even share some intelligence information — that does not necessarily mean open friendship.
In a Twitter message, Fatimah Baeshen, a spokeswoman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington, responded to the “purported politicization” of the chess event, saying visas had been granted to all citizens, except those from countries with no diplomatic ties to the kingdom.
But Lior Aizenberg, spokesman for the Israeli Chess Federation, said the decision to prevent the Israelis from attending was indeed political.
He said that before the tournament, which begins Tuesday, Israelis had been in touch with the Saudi Chess Federation, which was, he said, “extremely positive that we would get visas to attend.”
“There needs to be a clear separation between sports and politics,” Aizenberg said. “We want our players to play in all competitions. What is going on in the Arab world does not interest us.”
He said the seven players who had planned to participate were now seeking financial compensation from the World Chess Federation, also known as FIDE.
Promoting the King Salman Rapid & Blitz World Championships 2017 in Riyadh, FIDE said the total prize money for the tournament is $2 million, with individual prizes of up to $750,000. It said that 10 of the world’s top male chess players and 11 of the top female players would participate, along with players from 55 countries.
A statement about the tournament published last month highlighted that female players would not be forced to cover their heads during the games.
“A first for any sporting event in Saudi Arabia,” the statement said.
The organization also said it had been working to “ensure that visas will be issued to all players who have confirmed their participation.” Players from Qatar and Iran had also struggled to obtain visas, but by the start of the tournament all of them had been granted entry permits.
At the opening ceremony Monday, FIDE's deputy president, Georgios Makropoulos, expressed hope that all visa problems would be avoided next time.
“We also believe that our sport, and especially such events, should help in developing peace and friendship among people,” he said, according to FIDE’s website. “We would like to see the next event, here, as King Salman Peace & Friendship World Rapid & Blitz Chess Championships. Where everybody will be welcomed. I am certain that Saudi Arabia can send a strong message for peace and friendship around the world, and we are here with my colleagues to help.”