On paper, it was a captivating battle. In the name of geographical rotation, an Arab should have taken the lead of UNESCO’s leadership.
In the end, that is not what happened. Yet in the first round of voting, the four Arab candidates (Moushira Khattab for Egypt, Hamad Al-Kuwari for Qatar, Vera El Khoury Lacoeuilhe for Lebanon and Saleh Al-Hasnawi for Iraq) had obtained a total of 34 votes, i.e. 4 majority votes.
However, Audrey Azoulay is the new Director-General of UNESCO. On the starting line, the French woman was far from being the front runner. She had announced her candidacy at the very last minute.
In Paris, the then former minister of culture was considered as a parachuted of President Hollande who was finishing his mandate. And above all, her competitors recalled that as a member state, France could not claim to direct UNESCO.
For the final ballot, Audrey Azoulay faced Qatar’s candidate Hamad Al-Kuwari, former minister of culture of the Emirate. Admittedly, he lost by two votes only (30 against 28), but behind the scenes of the election, there was an anti-Qatar feeling.
The awkward tweet of Hamad Al-Kuwari saying that he was not “empty-handed” at UNESCO sparked great gossip, as well as his invitation for all members of the Executive Council of the Organization to Doha, the body that elects the Director General.
We have entered an “apolar” world where diplomatic relations are made and disentangled according to crises, the stakes and particular situationsChristian Chesnot
Rightly or wrongly, this diplomacy of the checkbook has displeased many. So much so that a French diplomat confided to me frankly: “here, it is not the PSG, it is UNESCO!”
After the shocking departure of the United States and Israel on the eve of the election, it was also whispered behind the scenes that if the candidate of Qatar were elected, Saudi Arabia and the UAE could have decided to slam the door and leave UNESCO.
Already very weak, especially in financial terms, the organization would have struggled to recover from further defections that would have precipitated its decline. The 58 members of the Executive Board did not want to take this risk.
In the end, what are the lessons we can take from this battle of UNESCO? What does it tell us about the diplomatic relations of power of 2017?
This failure of the Arab world - after that of the Egyptian candidate Farouk Hosni in 2009 - is another proof of the Arab countries’ erasure on the international scene. The June crisis between Qatar and its Gulf neighbors added another layer of traditional dissent and rivalry. The voice of the Arabs is inaudible and not heard.
The ‘great powers’
As for the great powers, it wasn’t better in anyways. China won only 5 votes in the first round of the UNESCO election. For a super power, it is a bitter failure. As for the United States of Donald Trump, the time has come for withdrawal on all fronts (UNESCO, climate, Iran, Cuba, etc.).
Under these circumstances, France, the average power, was able to pin its name in UNESCO, taking advantage of the weaknesses of others.
It seems like a long time ago when we talked about a “bipolar” world during the Cold War and a “multipolar” world with the rise of emerging countries (China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa, etc.) in the early years 2000.
Today, we have entered an “apolar” world: the relations of diplomatic force are made and disentangled according to crises, the stakes and the particular situations.
An undoubtedly more democratic world – at UNESCO, the voice of St Christopher and Nevis, a small Caribbean island, weighs as much as that of the United States or China – but certainly more unstable and dangerous too.
Christian Chesnot is grand reporter at Radio France in Paris in charge of the Middle East affairs. He has been based as correspondent in Cairo and Amman. He has written several books on Palestine, Iraq, Syria and the Gulf. Chesnot tweets @cchesnot.