The following is a guest contribution by Joseph Benzekri.
This week, the 58 members of UNESCO’s Executive Committee will decide who will serve as the next director-general of the United Nation’s educational, scientific and cultural organisation. Choosing the next director-general of UNESCO is an incredibly important decision – UNESCO is responsible not just for promoting education, culture, and heritage globally, but also for speaking out on critical but divisive issues like equal access to education for women. In pursuit of its mission, the DG will speak with a powerful voice not only at the UN but within other international talking shops.
There are nine candidates in all to succeed outgoing director-general Irina Bokova at UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris, but many international observers feel that it is the Arab world’s “turn” to take the helm. It is easy to see where they are coming from. In the 72 years since its founding, UNESCO has had directors-general from the Americas, Europe, East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, but never from the Middle East or North Africa.
Multiple Arab countries have put forward a candidate, but at least one of those bids is drawing attention for the wrong reasons. Qatar, in the midst of a diplomatic crisis and facing economic hardship, is spending lavishly to put forward its former information and cultural minister Hamad al-Kawari as a contender for the director-general’s chair.
Last month, Qatari officials welcomed a UNESCO delegation to the country for a guided tour of their universities and museums. Al-Kawari has taken his show on the road, traveling abroad to make his case to leaders that will help make the decision. Qatar’s outreach scored an early success when al-Kawari earned 19 of 58 votes in the first round of voting.
At a time when UNESCO’s core missions may be more vital for the Middle East than ever, it is an incredibly appealing thought that someone from the region could soon be using the organisation’s resources to fight – and fight hard – for knowledge, intellectual freedom, and unfettered arts and culture in the Arab world. A Qatari director-general may well pursue these aims, but it is just as likely Qatar’s leaders see UNESCO as yet another exercise in nation-branding.
This is not the first time the international community has been down this road, and previous experiences have left Qatar’s global partners regretting that they allowed Doha to have its way. No example is more infamous than the FIFA World Cup, to be played in Qatar in 2022 despite FIFA’s own admission that the Qatari bid “may not have met the standards set out in the FIFA code of ethics or the bid rules.” Allegations of bribery and attempts to influence FIFA officials have dogged the decision to award Qatar the Cup for seven years, especially after FIFA and Qatari organisers were forced to move the games to December to avoid extreme summer heat.
Of course, neither Qatar’s leaders nor FIFA will have to bear any real consequences from the World Cup decision. The same cannot be sad for the labourers responsible for building Qatar’s glittering new stadiums. Migrant workers in Qatar are being subjected to dangerously high temperatures and humidity; Human Rights Watch has found that hundreds of them are dying every year.
The scandals and controversy surrounding the World Cup have damaged Qatar’s formidable public relations machine, as have the accusations by its neighbours – and by the American president – that the country remains a sponsor of terrorism. All of this makes it highly unlikely that Qatar’s upstart candidacy at UNESCO will gain any real traction within the region. The coalition of Gulf Arab states currently blockading Qatar over its support for extremist groups withdrew their support for al-Kawari at the start of the crisis, and are now working on behalf of another Arab candidate.
Observers such as the Simon Wiesenthal Centre have repeatedly criticised al-Kawari for supporting anti-Semitic arts and literature during his tenure as Qatar’s minister of culture. One episode is especially egregious: al-Kawari signed the preface for a book called “Jerusalem in the Eyes of the Poets”, which claimed that “Israel is responsible for the Lebanese Civil War, the first and second Gulf wars; the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, the turmoil in Sudan, Egypt etc”, as well as arguing that “the Jews control the media, newspapers, publishing houses in the United States and the West.”
The next UNESCO head will have to maintain a positive working relationship with Tel Aviv, as UNESCO has already lost its U.S. funding over its recognition of Palestine and spent months bogged down in mutual acrimony between Israelis and Palestinians over its recognition of Hebron as a Palestinian world heritage site. Al-Kawari is clearly not off to a good start.
Outside of the region, the members of the UNESCO executive council will have to seriously consider whether a candidate from Qatar can truly commit to the organisation’s core missions of expanding access to education and freedom of thought. Al-Kawari is a representative of the same government that has provided shelter and political legitimacy to the Afghan Taliban for the past six years. This is the same Taliban that has bombed schools and attacked both teachers and students in Afghanistan. Places of learning like the Haji Golan school have been burned down by the Taliban for daring to give girls the knowledge they need for empowerment. In all, the UN identified 82 school attacks perpetrated by the Taliban in 2015 alone.
Given Qatar’s own embrace of extreme conservatism and its government’s close financial links to Islamist groups like the Taliban (but also Hamas and jihadists in Syria), how will al-Kawari speak credibly to furthering women’s education? UNESCO, after all, oversees the “Malala Fund” that advocates for education for girls. The fund’s namesake, Malala Yousafzai, survived an attempt on her life by the Taliban.
With groups like Daesh sprouting across the Middle East and the broader Muslim world, Arab leadership could give UNESCO powerful new legitimacy to speak to governments, religious leaders, and everyday citizens and convince them of the value of education, tolerance, and mutual respect for the arts and cultural pursuits. That does not mean, however, that UNESCO should settle for any candidate from the Arab world. In the case of Qatar’s candidacy, the wrong choice could end up doing more harm than good.
Joseph Benzekri is a Tunisian small business owner based in Paris. He is also active in North African civil society as an advocate for increased regional integration.
This guest contribution represents the personal views of the author and does not represent the views of MyEurop.