politics to go

A political chess game in Saudi Arabia


Last week, Saudi Arabia hosted chess players from 70 countries who competed in the King Salman World Rapid and Blitz Chess Championship in Riyadh. It was an opportunity for Saudi Arabia to showcase the recent easing of its oppressive Sharia-based cultural laws. When the Kingdom signed a three-year contract to host the chess championship, they probably didn’t realize that doing so would put them between a rock and a hard place and tarnish the image of a more open kingdom.

Ukrainian-born, world chess champion Anna Muzychuk refused to defend her title in Riyadh because, despite the recent loosening of the iron-fisted religious rule of Wahhabi Islam, the kingdom remains an oppressive environment for women. Her younger sister Mariya, a former world champion, joined Anna in skipping the event.

While Saudi Arabia ended a ban on women driving and eased rules on gender segregation, the kingdom’s male guardianship system requires women to have a male relative’s approval for decisions on such issues as education, employment, marriage and travel.

And for the chess championship, the World Chess Federation (FIDE) negotiated what it called an “historic agreement,” convincing Saudi Arabia to relax its female dress code for tournament participants. But that did not go far enough for Muzychuk since the nation continues to oppress women, treating them as second-class citizens.

“It was certainly quite difficult to take such a decision because I am a current world champion in these chess disciplines — rapid chess and blitz,” Anna Muzychuk told Reuters. “So if I do not participate in this tournament, I will lose both titles.”

The Saudi chess repression goes beyond the kingdom’s treatment of women. They’ve also refused to allow entry to Israeli chess players. At first, they were refusing players from Qatar and Iran also, but FIDE negotiated for the Saudis to allow those countries to participate. FIDE did not attempt to convince the Saudis to allow Israeli players in, or tried but were unsuccessful. Either way they allowed to tournament to continue despite the fact that the exclusion of the Israelis was against FIDE rules which state, “FIDE events (competitions, congresses, meetings) may be hosted only by Federations where free access is generally assured to representatives of all Federations.”

Last Sunday, Moshe Shalev, the interim head of the Israel Chess Federation, told the Times of Israel “that the seven players had not been granted visas, despite indications last month that they would make history by being the first representatives of the Jewish state to publicly take part in an event hosted by the kingdom, which does not officially recognize the State of Israel.”

Saudi Arabia should have known the tournament would be a political hot potato for them as soon as they agreed to host the tournament. While the monarchy and Israel have a behind the scenes alliance against Iran, and there were rumors that the heir apparent, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, visited Israel for talks in September, the Saudis probably realized that any public display of a loosening of tensions with Israel (especially while the government is easing religious restrictions) may cause extremists to incite public rioting and a move to overthrow the crown.

The spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in the U.S. tweeted on Tuesday, “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 [Israel] — thus has maintained its policy”

The contract between the Saudis and FIDE gives the kingdom the championship for two more years. If they are allowed to continue per the hosting per the contract, the Israeli Chess Federation has threatened to sue for the discriminatory treatment of their players.

Saudi Arabian acceptance of hosting duties is a political blunder that’s put them in checkmate. They left themselves with a Hobson’s choice of hurting their reputation in the anti-Israel Muslim world by allowing the Israelis in their country, or hurting themselves in the world community if they didn’t. Part of Saudi Arabia’s status is based on the fact that the kingdom houses the holy city of Mecca and Medina, and thus the leader of the Sunni Muslim world. They made their decision to protect their status in the Muslim world, correctly realizing that despite their blow against international cooperation, other countries will still buy their oil.