To say that the Middle East is a region of instability would be an understatement. The ongoing violence in Syria & Iraq receives heavy international news coverage. Now though, it seems it's perpetuated up through to the highest levels of diplomacy.

Four months ago, a coalition of Arab nations abruptly cut off all diplomatic ties with Qatar. Qatar is famous for being the world's richest country per capita. Among the various allegations were that Qatar is funding terrorism. Having an amicable relationship with Iran seems to only make things worse.

The coalition includes Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. The coalition has called for the shutdown of Al Jazeera. A preposterous claim, as Al Jazeera is widely considered the only true bastion of free press in the region. The Qatari foreign minister likened this ludicrous demand to if China were to call for the UK to shut down BBC.

Currently, no evidence has surfaced to back up these claims. On the contrary, Qatar has insisted, that along with the US, it has fought tirelessly in the War On Terror. It would make sense too, seeing as the US military has a middle east headquarters at the Qatari Al Udeid Airbase.

Despite global media coverage, it seems that most of the world has viewed this as a mere family fall. Of course, with the hope that it's all a misunderstanding that will end up in hug and make up.

Sadly, far from just being a small regional squabble, the ramifications are proving to be more serious. The fall out is threatening to disturb decades of global diplomatic progress.

Last week in Paris, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) held an election to appoint its new leader.

UNESCO is headquartered in Paris and was set up as the intellectual agency of the UN in post-war 1945. The agency is tasked with promoting peace, social justice, human rights and international security. It strives for international cooperation on educational, science and cultural programs.

UNESCO is best known for its World Heritage program. Its true aim though is to promote and maintain peace through inter-cultural understanding.

After more than a year of campaigning, 8 candidates from various nations competed for the votes of the Executive Board.

Among the candidates were Qian Tang of China, Audrey Azoulay of France, Moushira Khattab of Egypt and Hamad Al-Kawari of Qatar.

This election was of prime importance. UNESCO has been crippled by funding issues and politicization. In 2009, the United States withdrew their funding contribution, a third of UNESCO's total budget. This was in response to UNESCO choosing to recognize Palestine as a member state.

This election was widely referred to as the 'Arab election'. Uniquely, 4 of the 8 candidates in contention were from the Arab world. Up until now, no leader of UNESCO has come from the Arab world. Many diplomats around the world and those in the media have said it's their time.

The electoral process begun on the 9th of October and consisted of several rounds of voting. Executive Board members voted for their preferred candidates. Each round sought to result in a candidate with a majority (30) of the 58 total votes.

After the first round of voting, Hamad Al-Kawari of Qatar emerged as the frontrunner.

Al-Kawari, a seasoned diplomat has decades of experience as ambassador to various nations, including France and the US. Having previously, served as the Minister of Culture for his country, Al-Kawari was clearly the favorite.

Disappointingly for China, Tang didn't win more than 5 votes and pulled out from the contest in the 3rd round. This was despite Tang currently being UNESCO's Assistant-Director-General for Education. Clearly, having the support of a sole superpower was not enough.

Trailing behind Qatar were France and Egypt. Egypt's candidate, Khattab, had received much criticism in the run up to the election. Her backers, the oppressive El-Sisi regime, are under intense scrutiny itself for a litany of human rights abuses. Among those are the jailing of journalists and political opponents and censorship. Many NGOs and media outlets warned that if elected, Khattab would only be a mouthpiece of Egypt's dictator, el-Sisi.

Egypt's image has deteriorated rapidly in the past several months, with several experts calling for the US to limit its relations with it.

After four rounds of voting, Al-Kawari continued to lead from the front. In contention for second place was Egypt and the French candidate, Audrey Azoulay.

Azoulay's candidature was announced at the last minute, the day before the deadline, the 15th of March of this year. This was widely speculated as a last minute foreign policy push by President Hollande prior to his departure.

Azoulay, just 45-years, old briefly served as Culture Minister for France. Daughter of Andre Azoulay, adviser to Morocco's King Mohamed VI, she has no diplomatic experience.

A French candidate for the leader of a UN agency is generally seen as a 'safe' vote. Out of the 10 Director-Generals that have lead UNESCO in the past, 7 of those have been from Europe or the US. A French leader would seem to be the default with its headquarters being in Paris.

For the fifth and final round of voting, the top two candidates from the previous day would compete. However, Azoulay and Khattab were tied for second. Votes were first taken to decide who would go against Al-Kawari.

France's Azoulay prevailed and thus the world waited for the final round of voting against Qatar.

The Arab, anti-Qatar coalition had lost their preferred candidate, Khattab. Despite Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE not having a seat on the Executive Board, their influence no doubt is substantial.

They could have embraced the fact that with Al-Kawari, the arab world could, for the first time, have one of their own at the head of UNESCO. Or they could choose to act spitefully and undermine his efforts. Unfortunately, they chose the latter. The Egyptian Foreign Minister of Egypt, Sameh Shoukry was rather explicit in this. He was seen openly finger prodding and berating the Ambassador Kenya to vote against Qatar. His words were "despite it being a blind vote, we'll know who you voted for".

To add to the drama, President Trump of the United States announced his plan to withdraw the country from UNESCO. Israel was to follow suit. Both countries have loudly accused UNESCO of anti-Israel bias in the past. Whether the thought of a Qatari Director-General was the last straw is only speculation. Perhaps, President Trump was simply in another insular, anti-diplomatic mood.

Al-Kawari was the first candidate to announce his campaign and had begun work almost 2 years ago. Considered the underdog from the beginning, Al-Kawari visited over 60 world leaders during that time. Each visit, he would seek to understand the needs of each nation so he could best serve them as head of UNESCO.

Entering the first round of voting, it was clear he was the underdog no more. Al-Kawari had already received the firm support of many around the world. Support came from nations as diverse as Sweden, Pakistan, South Africa and Guatemala. With such strong support from Latin America, Guatemala's own candidate pulled out of the race in support of Qatar.

Despite it all, the fierce Arab lobby against Qatar tipped the balance. In the final round, Azoulay won the required majority of 30 votes. Al-Kawari was just 2 votes short, with 28.

The results pose key two questions:

  1. What if anything did, France or UNESCO gain from the appointment of Azoulay?

For France, not much. France already has formidable soft-power as a nation. It is considered by many to be the cultural capital of the world and is the country frequented most by tourists. It's unlikely that the head of UNESCO being French will do much for it. In addition, France has significant issues with maintaining its own cultural institutions, the additional burden of UNESCO may eventually turn out to be a diplomatic failure for the French Government as many regions felt France had little or no right to even contest for the post due to the unofficial regional rotation of the UNESCO DG post.

For UNESCO? It doesn't make a strong statement about its pursuit for diversity and understanding. This election was the perfect time to appoint an arab candidate. Instead of striving to depoliticize the agency, it allowed itself to be swayed by political infighting and the bullying of the United States.

An inexperienced candidate with no diplomatic experience will do little to add the stability the agency needs.

  1. Is Qatar the real winner here?

Qatar's Al-Kawari began the race as an underdog, fought his way to the front of the pack and it required a regional crisis to defeat him. With the United States throwing a tantrum and choosing to leave the agency, would have Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain had followed suit?

Qatar through Al Kawari’s global campaign was able to gain significant support from the developing nations and small islands nations.  In a highly significant diplomatic bow to his candidature, Guatemala withdrew its candidate in favour of Qatar. The support from El Salvador, Guatemala, Argentina and St. Kitts and Nevis  has created new bonds for Qatar and this indeed has given the small nation a stronger foreign policy advantage.

His campaign, director by Dentons strategist Richard Griffiths was hailed as a great success for Qatar by the international community as Hamad al Kawari visited every country on the 58 member executive board. This intensive campaigning gave Qatar and their candidate a strong foothold in regions such as Latin America, South Asia and East Africa.

Even if Al-Kawari had secured the extra 2 votes, would these countries have kicked their level of spite up a notch? It certainly is not out of the question. Rumours suggested that Al Kawari would never take office as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the blockade countries would spare no expense or political capital to block him from taking office. The UN general conference still would need to confirm him on Nov.10 in New York.

What remains is the fact that Qatar has shown that when it comes to the highest levels of diplomacy, it is a contender. Despite the regional squabbles, Qatar won the support of half of the world. Qatar may have lost the Director General of UNESCO post but they have gained in Al Kawari an internationally known Statesman with significant backing globally.

This support will not be forgotten by either side. Perhaps Qatar is just getting started, and the world has shown Qatar they can be a player globally.

Foreign Policy expert and writer on international affairs and policy

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