Saudi Arabia’s chess promotion gambit checked by controversies
The landmark event and its record $2 million (1.7 million euro) prize pot come as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman looks to repackage his oil-rich nation as more welcoming -- and moderate.
But a refusal to give Israeli players visas, doubts whether Iranians and Qataris will come, and a no-show over Saudi Arabia’s record on women’s rights have all cast their shadows.
The King Salman Rapid and Blitz 2017 tournament opened on Dec. 25, but just a day later Israel’s chess federation said it was seeking compensation from the game’s governing body FIDE over the rejection.
Hints of a tentative political rapprochement between the ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim kingdom and the Jewish state had stirred hope that Israeli players might play.
But the Saudis ultimately nixed their participation after Arab ire surged over U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
The Israeli team was not the only one to find itself caught up in the broader chess game of Middle East politics.
Players from Iran and Qatar -- both locked in their own regional rivalries with Riyadh -- were also a major doubt.
As reports swirled that the Iranian and Qatari delegations were not granted visas, World Chess Federation FIDE insisted they could show up -- even if they chose not to in the end.
“Ground-breaking special arrangements have been made to issue visas upon arrival for over 200 persons, including the players of Iran and Qatar,” FIDE said Dec. 24.
“The fact that players from Iran and Qatar may decide not to participate, after consulting with their own authorities, is clearly their own individual decision,” the statement added.
Beyond politics, the decision to hold the tournament in Riyadh drew criticism from some female players over Saudi Arabia’s tight regulations on women.
FIDE claimed success when it got the authorities to loosen up their traditional demands for full-body abayas with a “historic” dress code: High-necked white blouses.
But that was not enough to convince double champion Anna Muzychuk from Ukraine, who dropped out of the tournament despite the record-busting financial incentives.
“I am going to lose two World Champion titles - one by one,” she wrote on Facebook.
“Just because I decided not to go to Saudi Arabia. Not to play by someone’s rules, not to wear abaya, not to be accompanied getting outside.”
While the chess tournament might have been dented by the controversies, it has still drawn the game’s biggest names, including world number one Magnus Carlsen.
Saudi Arabia may be a chess backwater, but in the energy-rich Gulf region, using sporting showcases to build international prestige is a tried and trusted play.
Riyadh handed FIDE a “$1.5 million” cheque to host the event, analyst James Dorsey of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies wrote in an op-ed for the Huffington Post.
“Saudi Arabia joined the likes of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in using sports to polish its troubled international image,” he said.
Dorsey pointed out the move came despite the kingdom’s current grand mufti less than two years back saying “Islam forbids chess as a form of gambling and a waste of time.”
Other edicts in the past have gone even further, with two religious fatwas saying chess “distracts people away from the remembrance of Allah” and that playing for money was “prohibited.”
Those objections appear to have been deemed outdated, as the reform push under Prince Mohammed -- which includes lifting bans on cinemas and women drivers -- takes precedent.
For people in the kingdom, chess may still remain a very niche pursuit.
The best rated Saudi Ahmed Al-Ghamdi only ranks number 13,355 among the world’s active players.
But the landmark tournament seems to have stirred some interest.
When the state sports authority shared a live feed of opening matches on YouTube it was filled with comments by curious Saudis.
“They say chess is forbidden,” one posted.
“No, it’s not forbidden,” retorted another.
“How about nobody talks about religion, okay?” a third responded exasperatedly.