After an intense politicised battle, The United Nations’ cultural agency selected former French culture minister Audrey Azoulay as its new chief on Friday.
For five days, nine candidates for the top post have been reduced to two: former culture ministers, Qatar’s Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari and France’s Audrey Azoulay.
The 58-member Executive board voted today 30 to 28 in favour of Azoulay.
Arab states have long coveted UNESCO’s top job of the 195-member organisation, but the Gulf Crisis has prevented them uniting behind a single candidate.
Al-Kawari, who was tipped as the favourite the win contest, was unable to secure enough votes, which led to the election of his rival, France’s ex-culture minister Audrey Azoulay, who is Jewish of Moroccan origin.
The Director-General will need to recuperate UNESCO’s budgetary difficulties and diplomatic crisis following the withdrawal of the United States and Israel from the organisation.
UNESCO has been in financial turmoil since 2011, when the US started withholding a fifth of the body’s funding following the admission of Palestine as a full member.
Other major contributors such as Japan, Britain, and Brazil have also withheld their dues for 2017, citing objections to the body’s policies.
Over 2,000 people worldwide are employed by UNESCO. The agency has been forced to take drastic cuts to many of its programmes. The body’s 2017 budget was around $326 million, nearly half the amount it had in 2012.
Qatar and China have been vying against each other to fill the financial void as UNESCO’s main sponsors, with the former providing generous funding, a source told Conatus News.
“We need to do less with less. We’ve spent too long trying to do too much without the means,” a UNESCO official, who declined to be identified, told Reuters. “We need to sell ourselves better, but without funding it’s difficult to change our image.”
“The fact is that UNESCO was all about solidarity and creating a climate for peace between countries, but nations now use their dues to influence programmes. That needs to change,” said an UNESCO-based diplomat.
The US announced its departure on Thursday after accusing UNESCO of anti-Israeli bias, with Israel following the move.
“Unfortunately, this venue has become politicised, undermining the work of UNESCO across its mandate. It’s become a venue for anti-Israel bias, and unfortunately we are taking the decision to withdraw from UNESCO at this time,” U.S. charge d’affaires at UNESCO, Chris Hegadorn told Reuters.
Reacting to the US withdrawal on Friday, Steffen Seibert, a spokesperson for the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, said it sent a “bad signal” at a time of global instability, adding he hoped for changes in the body.
“That’s why we put all our hope in the future director-general and expect that this person will carry out reforms,” he told AFP.
“Abuse of this organisation for political reasons must come to an end.”
With the Gulf Crisis between Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain this competition has become particularly politically charged.
Sources told Conatus News that the US attempted to force the withdrawal of Egypt and Africa’s candidate Ambassador Moushira Khattab before the fourth round on Thursday in order to guarantee the Qatari and French candidates would be final candidates.
Arab countries have long complained that UNESCO has never had a Director-General from the region.
Al-Kawari’s family has been marred in a hushed-up scandal in Qatar when a nursery owned by them caught fire, killing 13 children and four adults. Doha News, the only independent media in the kingdom, who broke the story, was then shut down, and its site has been blocked ever since.
The Qatari has been actively lobbying for the position for several months, pitching himself as a resolute opponent of terrorism and a promoter of dialogue between cultures.
This been called into question, however, when the Simon Wiesenthal Centre l revealed that Al-Kawari has consistently distributed antisemitic literature.
A statement issued by the Anti-Defamation League after Monday’s initial ballot again highlighted Al-Kawari’s antisemitic associations, which include: “a foreword he wrote in a book that includes charges of Jewish domination of the media, as well as his endorsement of Culture Ministry-organised book fairs that included antisemitic speakers and texts, such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”