Two Saudi officials play chess during the opening of the first-ever world chess tournament held in Riyadh. The tournament is being held two years after the top Saudi cleric issued a religious edict against playing the game. Image Credit: AP

Dubai: Saudi Arabia is hosting a world chess tournament for the first time on Tuesday.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman has pushed for greater social freedom, including lifting a ban on women driving that goes into effect next year, allowing concerts and movies, and easing rules on gender segregation.

The tournament, called the King Salman World Rapid and Blitz Chess Championships, runs until Saturday.

It includes around 240 players — both men and women — from 70 countries. There are 16 players from Saudi Arabia.

The world’s top three chess players from Norway, Armenia and Azerbaijan are participating in the tournament.

There is also a women’s chess tournament taking place alongside the open championship.

Women are reportedly being allowed to wear dark blue or black formal trousers 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.”

James Dorsey, a Mideast scholar and senior fellow at the University of Singapore, said the kingdom was granted hosting rights by the World Chess Federation.

Saudi Arabia is hosting the tournament after the country’s top cleric, Grand Mufti Shaikh Abdul Aziz Al Shaikh, said in early 2016 that chess is “forbidden” in Islam because it wastes time and can lead to rivalry among players.

Similarly, top Iranian clerics have also decried the game, saying it can lead to gambling, which is not permissible in Islam.

The mufti’s comments at the time led to an outcry on social media by young Saudis who defended the game as intellectually stimulating.

Crown Prince Mohammad has led a reform drive in the country that has been lauded by many Saudis who say the easing of restrictions will help the country move forward and prosper.

Players from Qatar and Iran have been granted visas to participate in the tournament despite Saudi Arabia’s cutting of ties with both the countries due to political tensions.

Saudi Arabia has not granted players from Israel to participate.