15 DECEMBER 2009


It is not usually done and it is not typically Japanese. Just before concluding his ten year tenure as UNESCO Director General in Paris, Koichiro Matsuura appointed his Assistant Director General Ahmed Al-Sayyad as UNESCO representative to United Nations Headquarters in New York. He could have waited one month until the new Director General Irina Bokova took over so that she could designate her own candidate for a key representative post. The rush to an appointment obviously means not just a farewell present by an outgoing director to his assistant but also persistent pressure by the appointment seeker.

Ahmed Al-Sayyad is a former Representative of Yemen to UNESCO who was recruited by Matsuura after the Japanese diplomat won the post of Director General in a competition with Saudi Arabia's Ghazi Al-Qusaibi. As his Assistant Director-General for external Relations and Co-operation, Mr. Matsuura gave Al-Sayyad a wide margin. The results were mixed. Let's say they were not impressive. During ten years in crucial posts, he was hardly recognized by any mainstream media nor noted for any creative venture. An impression was that he was a "fixer" for Matsuura, particularly among Arab members of the UNESCO Board; on which he had once served. During his tenure, he reportedly facilitated for a number of prosperous Arab businessmen the designation of tiny countries in the Caribbean and Pacific Islands to become their special representatives to UNESCO. That claim may be exaggerated, although there are by now a number of businessmen on that Board, not necessarily of Al-Sayyad's doings but through their own "contributions" to the rulers of these governments.

Another area was the designation of "UNESCO ambassadors" which came directly under Al-Sayyad's area. Again, lots of questions were raised about some genuine and some dubious appointments of wealthy patrons who tended to enjoy blending their UNESCO prestigious designation with social visits to the French capital.

That is all corridor talk at Place de Fontenoy. But now the questions arise as to why did Mr. Matsuura hurriedly appoint Al-Sayyad to New York instead of anywhere else? He must have consulted, as a practical courtesy, with the incoming Director General who obviously, also as a practical courtesy, could not be in a position to object.

But why New York, which Al-Sayyad rarely visited during his ten years with UNESCO, despite close working relations with the U.N. Department of Public Information? He does not communicate effectively in English, while New York media, NGOs, civic society and the general public is Anglophone. (His Spanish is not that good either, just in case he would be reaching out to the expanding Latino community!)

Another question relates to rank. The post in New York is at the D-2 level. Why would someone with a rank of Assistant Director General wish to take a lower level post?

And, more important for credibility, why would someone push to IMPOSE himself on a new Director General who, despite a polite agreement, would most likely feel that the key post was hers to designate particularly that with her background, she needs her "own man" in New York.

We'll soon find out.