(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
A Saudi Arabian TV host sparked fury this week when he called for Israeli teams to be allowed to compete in sports tournaments.
Waleed Al-Faraj spoke out after it emerged that seven Israeli chess players have submitted visa requests to play in a tournament in Riyadh next month.
The move has split the top of the Israeli chess world with the country’s three highest-ranked players boycotting the event.
Grandmasters from Iran and Qatar are also expected to be excluded from the event.
Speaking on MBC Action’s channel, Al-Faraj said it was time for Saudi Arabia to throw open its sports competitions to everyone, whatever their country of origin.
He said: ‘You need to get it out of your head to prevent anyone from entry, and try to adapt to the next stage and receive everyone and welcome all people. And when a disaster happens we can’t discriminate against all people just because they are from a particular state or religion’.
MBC is the Arab World’s most popular TV channel and the program Al-Faraj presents, called Action League, is a hit with male millennials.
But his calls for a normalization of relations between the two countries was not received so well on Saudi street.
Twitter users responded with a string of attacks and launched hashtags such as ‘AlFarajCalls ForIsrael-ingSport’ and ‘SaudiAgainstNormalisation’.
Tamim MT said: ‘We are not obliged to host any tournament if Israelis have to be present’.
@abunajem1 said: ‘This is a man who comes up with a new story that humiliates our religion and traditions. May God protect us from his evil and the evil of every corrupt mind like his’.
@MbinA15 pointed out that because Al-Faraj had not been censured for his remarks it meant this was what the authorities wanted to happen.
He said: ‘In short, if the country didn’t agree with his claims it would have held him accountable. But the country is driving us all towards normalisation’.
@ebra7000 agreed saying: ‘The Zionist opposition has now become their friend, they defend it and its vicious practices.’
The decision to host the World Rapid and Blitz Championships in Saudi Arabia has caused a rift in the Israeli chess world.
Among those wanting to go are Masha Klinova and Julia Shvaiger. Their decision came after the authorities in Riyadh announced women would not have to wear a hijab while competing, as is custom.
But Israel’s three best players – Boris Gelfand, Maxim Rodshtein and Emil Sutovsky – are staying away.
They have joined a boycott announced by the top players in the world objecting to Saudi Arabia’s poor human rights record and treatment of women.
‘’(The tournament) has never been held in a country with such a controversial reputation’, said Sutovsky.
Lior Eisenberg, of the Israeli Chess Federation, said that if the Israeli players were allowed to compete, it would be the first tangible sign of a normalisation of relations between the two countries following decades of enmity.
Mr Eisenberg, who expects the visas to be granted, said: ‘Like everyone else I have read that relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia are getting better.
‘If we compete in Riyadh it will be the first official sign of a change in the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Israel, but we have to wait and see.
Earlier this month Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s minister of energy, confirmed there have been numerous contacts between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
He told Israel’s Army Radio that it was the Arab countries who had insisted on keeping behind-the-scenes activity secret.Anthony Harwood is a former foreign editor of the Daily Mail.