WHEN A chess tournament opened in Saudi Arabia this week, the World Chess Federation said in a statement that it “has been working very hard and in a discreet manner to organise and safeguard the process of entry visas for all participants of the event.” The games are a “vehicle for promoting peace and development of friendship amongst all nations,” the statement said, adding that the federation and the Saudi organizers “are always ready to welcome any participant.” But as the games got underway Tuesday, those statements proved hollow. Saudi Arabia refused to give visas to seven Israelis to participate.
The reason for excluding them, a Saudi spokeswoman said, is that the kingdom and Israel do not have diplomatic relations. This is a flimsy pretext; the two countries do in fact have informal contacts and increasingly share a hostility toward Iran. The kingdom evidently would rather have secret contacts with Israel than welcome seven chess players to an open tournament. Rubbing salt into the wound, the federation and the kingdom issued an obsequious news release pledging to admit players from Qatar and Iran, both increasingly at odds with Saudi Arabia.
For seven decades, the Arab world has wished Israel would fall into the sea or be driven there. The Jewish state has not and will not. If Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is truly committed to rejuvenation of the kingdom, as he claims to be, then he might discard some of the calcified thinking of his forebears. His attempts to diversify Saudi Arabia away from dependence on oil, to permit women the right to drive, to allow public cinemas, to crack down on corruption and to pursue other initiatives all point toward a young leader capable of jettisoning an outdated mind-set at home.
The crown prince’s more open-minded instincts were reflected in a Nov. 14 statement about the planned tournament, which said of the dress code for female participants: “There will be no need to wear a hijab or abaya during the games, this will be a first for any sporting event in Saudi Arabia.” The sponsors proposed that men wear dark suits and white shirts, and women “dark blue or black formal trouser suits, with high necked white blouses.”
Anna Muzychuk of Ukraine, who holds world champion titles in two types of speed chess being played this week, nonetheless chose not to defend her titles in Saudi Arabia, because of the kingdom’s broader restrictions on women’s rights: “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,” she declared.
She could have added: not to take part in a tournament from which legitimate contestants are excluded. If a nation cannot welcome everyone, it should not be given the honor of hosting a world tournament.