Israeli chess players could make history by participating in a tournament in Saudi Arabia after the international chess governing body on Tuesday said it was pushing to allow it to happen.
A spokesman for the Israel Chess Federation told AFP seven players had filed requests for visas to participate in the games to be held in Riyadh on December 26-30 as part of the world rapid and blitz chess championships.
Israel and Saudi Arabia have no official relations. The presence of Israelis there would be highly unusual, and comes as officials from the Jewish state increasingly hint at covert ties with the Sunni-ruled kingdom.
Israel and Saudi Arabia share a common fear of Iran’s attempts to increase its influence in the region.
Georgios Makropoulos, deputy president of the World Chess Federation (FIDE), said that the papers of the seven Israeli chess players — five men and two women — had been handed to the Saudi organizers “and the visa status is currently pending.”
“We are making a huge effort to assure that all players get their visas,” Makropoulos said in a Tuesday statement.
The Israeli chess federation said it “supports FIDE’s policy to hold the tournament in Saudi alongside FIDE’s commitment to ensure the participation of Israelis would not be subject to limitations,” spokesman Lior Aizenberg told AFP.
“We expect the Saudis, aided by FIDE, to approve our requests for visas to play,” he said.
Aizenberg noted the Israeli chess federation chairman Zvika Barkai had discussed the issue of the Saudi visas with Makropoulos as well as with FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, who recently visited Israel.
A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry said he didn’t believe there would be a problem for the Israelis to participate in the Riyadh games if the visas were granted.
Israeli athletes often face difficulties when competing around the Middle East due to hostility toward their country.
In a recent incident, an Iranian wrestler was lauded by his government after he intentionally lost an international bout at a tournament in Poland over the weekend to avoid having to face an Israeli opponent.