NOVEMBER 1, 2017


The campaign to select a new Director-General for UNESCO seemed neither Educational, Scientific, nor Cultural. It reflected raw political -- even financial -- maneuvers, pressures, and back-stabbing, compounded by a widely-known fact that certain wealthy individuals had -- since an earlier term of an Asian Director-General -- bought diplomatic representation to officially represent certain disinterested yet needy countries through its senior officials. Such prevailing "ambiance" will have to be at least partially cleared as a new Director-General prepares to take over an initially daunting task.

The newly-elected UNESCO Director-General, Audrey Azoulay, will take over end-November to handle new challenges, along with the usual management tasks. Her predecessor, Ms. Bokova, played a remarkable role, particularly in standing up with distinctive courage -- often alone -- in defence of threatened cultural heritage sites in areas of conflict. Yet, traditional assignments, plus additional structural and management requirements have to be faced.

Newly-elected UNESCO Director-General, Audrey Azoulay

Besides the trivial superstition of winning on a Friday the 13th, there were two new elements during the October election period: one was a divided and divisive atmosphere amongst Executive Committee members, mainly due to the rift between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and UA Emirates with Qatar, which presented a candidate who originally had consensus support of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Dr. Hamad Bin Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari, former Qatar Culture Minister and former Ambassador to the U.N. in New York and Geneva, felt almost certain, at 69 years of age, to conclude his career with a most prominent international post in Paris. Other candidates, including a charming Lebanese woman who officially represented the Caribbean Republic of Belize, were in mainly for the ride until June when the Gulf's gulf erupted. Ms. Azoulay, 45, former French Minister of Culture for two years under President Hollande, cautiously explored her options. A major consideration was that as the host country, France traditionally gave way to other members except once, when Mr. René Maheu took over as Director-General. Those who attended U.N. inter-agency meetings at the time (early Seventies) recall Mr. Maheu's understated sense of humour. "I will not be able to attend tomorrow's meeting; regretfully, I will not be adding to the confusion," was one of his quips. He was also keen on drawing attention to his outstandingly qualified intellectual Assistant Director, Mahdi El-mandjra, who happened to be from Morocco. By co-incidence, Audrey Azoulay, while a French citizen, comes from a distinguished Jewish family in Morocco. Her father, Andre Azoulay, was a close adviser to late King Hassan, particularly on Middle East affairs. She is also a graduate of École National & Administration (ENA), which has produced most senior French officials.

Dr. Hamad Bin Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari

During the voting week, UNESCO's atmosphere was neither educated, scientific, nor cultural. On the last day, Friday, an Egyptian "diplomat" stood outside Salle X, where the Executive Committee was about to vote, shouting repeatedly in heavily-accented French "No Qatar, Vive La France." U.N. Security officers approached as he continued to twist and shout. The Foreign Minister of Egypt, Sameh Shoukry, had arrived, ostensibly to support an Egyptian female candidate, but actually to block Mr. Kuwari, while the Qatar Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani was there, actively promoting, diplomatically -- perhaps, financially -- a very close race. Of the 58 votes, Ms. Azoulay got 30, Mr. Kuwari 28 -- a 2 vote difference.

While Mr. Kuwari graciously indicated that the support he received demonstrated his country's "elevated international standing," Al-Jazeera Arabic TV was not as gracious. While rightly exposing the gangster style of the shouting Egyptian "diplomats," it made other comments with obvious religious and ethnic nuances.

While Ms. Azoulay will await a formal validation by UNESCO: full 195 members end-November, she will need all the help she can get to start healing a broken body and dealing with eroding confidence in the organization's potential role -- in addition to the usual management problems.

Another new challenge is a decision on 12 October by U.S. President Donald Trump to leave UNESCO (and avert paying accumulated financial assessment of about $500 million!). The decision was taken one day before the election, the reason mentioned was its anti-Israeli stance; the government of Israel also took a similar decision the same day. A diplomat in Paris pointed out that the U.S. decision could be a bargaining quest for a deal. Taken when it became clear to an informed observer (like the U.S.) that the French candidate will win, perhaps the U.S. could be persuaded to return -- with certain understandings - to an organization run by a candidate presented by French President Macron, a proclaimed personal friend of the U.S. President. As to an anti-Israel claim, neither Mr. Trump, nor for that matter Mr. Netanyahu, could credibly hold it against Ms. Azoulay.