Saudi Arabia has been stripped of the right to host an international chess tournament after Israeli players threatened legal action over being barred from the event.
With just weeks to go before the start of the World Blitz and Rapid Championship in Riyadh, organizers confirmed Monday they were switching the venue to Russia instead.
FIDE: World Chess Federation also said it would no longer be hosting tournaments in countries that denied entry to all national federations eligible to take part.
FIDE Director General Emil Sutovsky, a former Israeli grandmaster, told Haaretz in an email: “The championships were moved from Saudi Arabia to Russia due to the policy adopted by the Saudi organizers.
“The new leadership of FIDE made it clear that FIDE will no longer stage its official events in the countries that deny entry visa and fair treatment to all the eligible players. We will stick to this policy, and make sure that chess players from any country will not be banned from participation in the official events, based on their nationality, ethnicity, race or gender,” Sutovsky said.
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Last year, seven Israeli players were denied visas by the Saudis, which prevented them from competing in the championships – the first of three due to be held in Riyadh.
Two competitors from Qatar – which is involved in a protracted diplomatic row with Saudi Arabia – were only granted visas at the last minute and told they could not fly their country’s flag. But FIDE, which received $1.5 million to host the event in Saudi Arabia, did not bow to pressure to switch countries.
However, the outcry led to many of the world’s top chess grandmasters – including Sutovsky, who later took over the leadership of FIDE – boycotting the championships, which went ahead as planned.
Earlier this year, Israeli grandmaster Ilya Smirin and former Israel Chess Federation spokesman Lior Eisenberg wrote to FIDE, seeking assurances that the situation would not be repeated at this year’s championships.
The letter said their “inability to participate in this tournament was due to FIDE’s failure to secure entry visas to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for the Israeli nationals and, correspondingly, its failure to guarantee their equal treatment and to protect them against discrimination on the basis of their nationality.”
Smirin and Eisenberg’s lawyers cited FIDE’s own official policies, which said the chess body “rejects discriminatory treatment for national, political, racial, social or religious reasons, or on account of gender.”
It also pointed out that, under its own rules, FIDE events may only “be hosted by federations where free access is generally assured to representatives of all federations.”
The Israelis were represented in their battle by the Lawfare Project, a U.S.-based litigation fund that works to protect the rights of Jewish and pro-Israel communities throughout the world.
“FIDE violated their own rules by discriminating against players based on their national origin. But even if they didn’t outline it in their rules, it would still be wrong,” said Lawfare Project Executive Director Brooke Goldstein.
“Nobody who wants to engage in sport should be targeted because of their race, ethnicity, skin color, national origin, gender or sexual orientation,” she said. “You don’t take your politics and then mirror it onto a local person. These are chess players – they’re not government officials.”
Goldstein added that after last year’s event, FIDE added insult to injury by compensating the Israeli players 500 euros (nearly $570) for missing out on the championships.
“If there was an African person, an African-American, a black person or a Chinese person or a Muslim that was excluded from a worldwide sports tournament, would they take this long to admit that what they did was wrong?” she asked.
“But to turn around and pay that person off? The Israeli players felt insulted by FIDE for excluding them, they felt insulted by the attempt to pay them off and they came to us,” Goldstein said.
Saudi Arabia has been accused of using sport to rebrand its image in the wake of criticism over human rights abuses.
Last month, human rights group Amnesty International called on the world’s top two tennis players, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, not to play in a lucrative exhibition match in Riyadh, following the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
The event was only called off when Nadal had to undergo surgery for an ankle injury.
But another call by Amnesty for the Italian Super Cup final between Juventus and AC Milan not to go ahead in Jeddah next month has fallen on deaf ears and is still due to go ahead.