Saudi Arabia brushed aside rulings from top clerics to host a big money chess tournament, but the gambit to improve the kingdom's image has been jolted by regional powerplays.
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. And in 2009, Israeli tennis player Shahar Peer was denied a visa to play in a tournament in Dubai. "What is going on in the Arab world does not interest us".
Chess tournaments, for better or worse, don't usually command global headlines. However, Qatari players will not compete in the championship because Qatar's chess federation said organizers demanded that the players not display the Qatari flag during the competition. "If I made a decision to play there I could have a good chance to win".
Speaking to Reuters, Israeli Chess Federation's spokesperson Lior Aizenberg said, "The event is not a world championship if they prevent chess players from several countries from taking part [.] Every chess player should have the right to participate in an event on the basis of professional criteria, regardless of their passports, their place of issue or the stamps they bear".More news: One dead after 4.2 quake hits near Iran capital
Women are reportedly being allowed to wear dark blue or black formal pants and high-necked blouses, avoiding Saudi rules of dress that require female residents and most visitors to wear loose-fitting, long robes known as "abayas".
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.
By skipping the World Rapid and Blitz Chess Championships, which began Tuesday in Riyadh and end Saturday, Muzychuk said she was aware that not only was she set to "lose two World Champion titles - one by one", but also to pass up an opportunity to "earn more than I do in a dozen of events combined".
Saudi Arabia ended a ban on women driving in September but the conservative kingdom's male guardianship system requires women to have a male relative's approval for decisions on issues like education, employment, marriage and travel plans. "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 concluded.More news: Teens Who Dropped Sandbag From Overpass Charged With Murder
Rules governing women's status meant she would have been made to feel "a secondary creature", she said in a Facebook post.
Barkai particularly took aim at FIDE claiming to welcome "any participant" even as it did not allow Israeli chess players to attend. That dress code was a first for any sporting event in Saudi Arabia, the organization said. Saudi Arabia's top cleric, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al Sheikh, said in early 2016 that chess is "forbidden" in Islam because it wastes time and can lead to rivalry among players.
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". "FIDE must send a message that if Saudi Arabia continues with this policy, it will not be eligible to host future championships".
"How about nobody talks about religion, okay?" a third responded exasperatedly.More news: Against Iowa, Turnovers Cost Eagles Pinstripe Bowl
Saudi Arabia is one of the most populous Islamic nations in the world.