First Published: 2017-10-13

Qatar, Egypt set for UNESCO standoff
Arab states believe job of director-general of 95-member UNESCO should go to one of them for first time, but regional tensions have complicated the task.
Middle East Online

Logo of UNESCO is seen in front of its headquarters in Paris, France.

Two Arab candidates and France's former culture minister vied to become the new head of the UN's embattled culture and education agency on Friday, a day after the US quit the body, accusing it of anti-Israel bias.

The politically charged campaign to succeed UNESCO's outgoing chief Irina Bokova was overshadowed by Washington's announcement Thursday that it planned to withdraw from the body after years of tensions over decisions seen as critical of Israel.

Israel itself announced shortly afterwards that it would follow suit.

Arab states believe the job of director-general of the 195-member organisation should go to one of them for the first time, but regional tensions have complicated the task.

They are divided between backers of oil-rich Qatar and its poorer rival Egypt, which is part of a Saudi-led coalition that has been blockading Qatar since June over its alleged support for radical Islamists and ties to Iran.

Former Qatari culture minister Hamad bin Abdoulaziz Al-Kawari is currently leading the contest, with French ex-culture minister Audrey Azoulay and Egyptian rights activist Moushira Khattab locked in joint second.

There have been four rounds of voting already and another two are expected to produce a winner on Friday.

- Arab divisions -

In the face of Arab divisions, France has presented Azoulay as a consensus figure who could mend fences within the organisation and sooth tensions caused by recent resolutions against Israel.

"Now more than ever UNESCO needs a project... which restores confidence and overcomes political divisions," the foreign ministry said in a statement reacting to the US pullout.

Lebanon's candidate Vera El-Khoury, who bowed out at the fourth round, told AFP that the power game at play in the race had shown UNESCO members "did not give a damn" about the candidates' programmes.

Qatar has lobbied intensely for the post -- and has increased its financial contribution to support UNESCO in recent years -- but its candidate has been dogged by old allegations of anti-Semitism.

He has notably been accused by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which combats anti-Semitism, of remaining silent over the presence of anti-Semitic books at a fair in Doha when he was culture minister.

This is not the first time the US -- a founding member -- has walked out on the 195-member UNESCO, best known for producing a list of World Heritage sites including tourist favourites such as the Grand Canyon or Cambodia's Angkor Wat.

The US decision, which is to take effect on December 31, 2018, underlined America's drift away from international institutions under President Donald Trump.

The agency's outgoing head, Bulgaria's Irina Bokova, told French radio that UNESCO's "universal mission was in jeopardy".

US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the decision to leave reflected "US concerns with mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organisation, and continuing anti-Israel bias."

Ex-president Ronald Reagan first pulled the US out in 1984 over alleged financial mismanagement and claims of anti-US bias in some of its policies.

Washington returned to the fold in 2002, seeing UNESCO as a vehicle for combatting extremism in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

But in 2011 relations soured again after UNESCO admitted Palestine as a full member, prompting the US to cut its funding to the organisation, leaving a gaping hole in its finances.

The rift continued to fester in recent years, with the organisation becoming the scene of repeated diplomatic flare-ups after efforts led by Arab countries to pass resolutions critical of Israel.

 

Qatar says Gulf crisis hindering fight against IS

Khamenei vows to 'shred' nuclear deal if US pulls out

Baghdad says mission accomplished in Kurd operation

Bahrain accuses Iran of harbouring 160 'terrorists'

Jobless Tunisians seek new migration routes to Europe

EU says Israeli settlements illegal under international law

Kurdish independence goes from dream to dust

Female commander more than just poster girl for Raqa victory

Saudi airline flies to Baghdad for first time in 27 years

Wanted Dead: France's approach to IS jihadists

Saudi Arabia to monitor interpretations of prophet's sayings

Italy busts Libyan diesel smugglers

Fate of IS fighters in Raqa uncertain

Turkish Red Crescent concerned by Idlib humanitarian ‘drama’

US firm to build solar plants in Gaza

Ghost city Raqa scanned for survivors, bombs

Qatar emir calls for talks on visit to Indonesia

Iraq calls on BP to help develop Kirkuk oil

Israeli forces raid Palestinian media offices linked to Hamas

French parliament is set to pass new anti-terror law

Israel says no to Palestine talks until Hamas disarms

IS territory down to almost 10% of 2014 ‘caliphate’

Over 3000 civilians flee Raqa under deal with jihadists

Ideology and objectives clash at Deir Ezzor

Erdogan gets Polish backing on Turkey's EU bid

Iranian guards commander killed in Syria

Fitch Ratings says threat to Qatar liquidity fading

Iran warns EU against new nuclear deal conditions

Turkey activists face trial next week under terror charges

Netanyahu presses Russian defence minister on Iran

US-backed forces announce Raqa recapture

Hollande slams Trump's hardline stance on Iran nuclear deal

Iraq takes control of two key Kirkuk oil fields

US-backed forces retake Raqa state hospital

Divided Iraq tests limited US influence

New UN envoy in Rabat to restart talks on WSahara

Iraqi forces seize Kirkuk governor's office

Iraqi forces seize airport, oil field from Kurds

Saudi Arabia sets conditions to role in Syria reconstruction

In tougher approach, US offers multimillion-dollar reward for Hezbollah operatives

EU ministers join forces in support of Iran deal

Batteries, tape to thank for defeating jihadists in Raqa

Palestinian Authority top official visits Gaza

Israel strikes Syrian anti-aircraft battery in response to shots

Qatar starts to feel pinch from sanctions