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Rebranding UNESCO: An interview with H.E. Dr. Hamad Al Kawari UNESCO Director General candidate

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] S [/yt_dropcap]ince his nomination for the position by Qatar in March 2016, Dr Al Kawari has also won support of a number of countries representing various continents Africa, Europe, Asia and Americas. UNESCO needs rebranding and he believes that under his leadership, the Organization will make a fresh start so that it can achieve the goal of the founding fathers. Will Dr Al Kawari be the first Arab leader in UNESCO? In an exclusive interview to Modern Diplomacy and Dimitris Giannakopoulos, he shares his vision about the prestigious Organization, towards the November election.

How important is UNESCO leadership for Qatar?

UNESCO incarnates the conscience of the world, through the deep interest it has given to the human issues which, through education, culture, science as well as heritage, have shaped up the past, current and future intellectual, social and cultural development of human beings.

Of equal importance are UNESCO’s other areas of interest including gender equality, the promotion of dialogue between civilizations, the development of youth programs, sustained focus to the environment in all its dimensions and safeguarding human memory, all of which are structured around human development.

It is against this background that the State of Qatar is seeking to serve these humanitarian goals. Since it became a UNESCO member, the State of Qatar has been very supportive towards this Organization in terms of the implementation of educational programs (Educate a Child), heritage protection programs as well as other programs, not to mention the financial support it has been providing throughout the Organization’s many various critical stages of its existence, its unshakable aim being to better serve the Organization and its humanitarian goals.

Let there be no doubt that the presence of one of its nationals at the head of the Organization will make Qatar and its sister countries even more keen to provide him with all the support that he would need to succeed in his mission and to help the Organization overcome its crisis and move forward.

Once elected, which initiatives will you first start working on?

There are several aligned and interrelated initiatives that need to be taken by the Organization. The ultimate purpose of such initiatives should be to address the crisis facing the Organization and help it make a fresh start so that it can achieve the goal of the founding fathers.

However, UNESCO needs rebranding, as it no longer enjoys the image it used to have. As I was making my visits to the various continents, I have come to realize that some people do not know the location of UNESCO, nor are they familiar with its fields of competence. Some even confuse it with other organizations. Refocusing the image of UNESCO and ensuring a more effective dissemination of its noble objectives will definitely help secure more support from everyone.

Among other feasible initiatives that could be conjured up is the setting up of a Small Projects Fund which would cater for the needs of countries for such projects.

With respect to the financial aspect, the situation was examined and possible actions are envisaged in cooperation with senior officials, the President of the Executive Board and the President of the General Conference.

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Which other issues do you think are of paramount importance?

One of the most critically important issues to urgently deal with is the political dimension of the UNESCO crisis. During the Candidates general discussion held at the end of April in Paris, I happened to be the only one who dared to speak openly about the role of the United States which has frozen the payment of its share to UNESCO’ budget since 2011 following the admission of Palestine to UNESCO. Since then, the crisis has become increasingly critical. The growing concern about issues related to the Memory of the World and the positive observations made on transparency and arbitration during the Organization’s journey are but a few issues that need to be addressed bravely in order to solve them. The Director-General plays a vital and effective role in raising these issues whenever and wherever appropriate, and in initiating dialogue with the concerned parties in order to overcome the problems. Turning a blind eye on the political aspect or shying from it will prove a not so constructive approach at all.

Cultural Heritage has become some kind of hostage to terrorist groups such as ISIS. Can this threat be averted?

Extremists and terrorists aim at destroying not only human lives but also the conscience of the world, its past, civilization and history, and in a nutshell its heritage.

The world should be made aware of this. There are urgent measures to be taken akin to the Heritage Support Fund established in Abu Dhabi and the Security Council Resolution condemning the destruction of cultural heritage, and stressing the importance of preserving and restoring it.

In the discussions held at the end of April, I raised the slogan “Let UNESCO be the best means to combat terrorism through education and culture”. During the discussions and the campaign, I put forward specific proposals regarding this matter, in particular emphasizing the upstream role to be played by education in addressing the root causes of terrorism. The eradication of its financial roots alone is not sufficient To wage an efficient war against terrorism, emphasis should also be placed on qualitative education through shared human values such as tolerance, mutual respect between cultures and the fight against poverty.

In line with this, I called for a world cultural day to be devoted to the promotion of the role of culture and the culture of peace in the fight against terrorism and extremism. In fact, UNESCO and its programs are as most effective in combatting terrorism as the use of military means.

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Is the current Budget enough to carry out the tasks of the organization?

Needless to say that, for optimum performance of the task, more financial resources is needed. Abu Dhabi Conference and the Heritage Support Fund are important, but the task is huge, especially after the sabotage acts perpetrated by the terrorists.

Having been named the ‘Man of the Arab Heritage’ for 2016, and considering my immutable interest in heritage, human heritage and its preservation is bound to be a cornerstone in my work as Director-General, once elected.

Should governments be more cooperative in other ways?

During my trips to the countries of the world, namely, the Caribbean, Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe, I have come to realize that the world has faith in the importance of UNESCO and is aware of the dangers facing us. This is a good sign indicating that there exists a genuine political will to overcome such dangers and to steer UNESCO back to the successful path it used to follow.

UNESCO is a just cause, but one which needs an advocate who believes in it, who is fully aware of the intricate implications of its goals and who has the required competence, experience, vision, public relations, international network and friends to enable him to undertake the needed rescue operation. Only then will the cause achieve the desired success.


Hamad Bin Abdulaziz Al-Kawari is a Qatari diplomat and statesman. Dr. Al-Kawari serves as an Adviser at the Amiri Diwan (Royal Palace of Qatar), and was formerly the Minister of Culture, Arts and Heritage of Qatar (2008-2016). He was previously the Ambassador of Qatar to France, the United States, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and the UN. Dr. Al-Kawari is a candidate in next election of the Director-General of UNESCO, to take place in autumn 2017. He is married and the father of three children.

Journalist, specialized in Middle East, Russia & FSU, Terrorism and Security issues. Founder and Editor-in-chief of the Modern Diplomacy magazine. follow @DGiannakopoulos

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Middle East

Iraq Opens Hands to the Pope Francis’ Historic Visit

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Copyright © Dicastero per la Comunicazione - Vatican Media

The world looks forward to Pope Francis’ historic visit to Iraq which is considered the first papal trip represented by the Roman Catholic Church to the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia, despite spreading the second wave of COVID-19 and the security situation in Iraq. This expected visit has an important impact on highlighting the challenges and disasters of humiliation, the sectarian war and displacing people, Yazidis persecution, and fleeing the Christian minorities that faced Iraq during all these past years after the US invasion occurred in 2003.

The three-day-visit is considered as the message of peace after years of war and violence, referring that the Pope’s visit is as a pilgrim to the cradle of civilization. The papal visit includes Baghdad, Erbil, Mosul- Qaraqosh, and Ur city. The trip comes after 18 months as the pandemic restricts his movement, and it is the first visit to the Middle East when he visited the U.A.E in February 2019 where he met and celebrated in front of 180,000 people at the Zayed Sports City stadium in Abu Dhabi.

The papal visit was intended to occur twenty years ago when St. John Paul II tried to visit Mesopotamia during Saddam’s regime, but the endeavors failed to complete that proposed trip. “The people of Iraq are waiting for us. The people waited for St. John Paul II who was not permitted to go. We cannot disappoint them twice”, said the Pope.

In a video message addressed by the Pope to the people of Iraq, he expressed his happiness and longing to meet the people who suffered from war, scourges, and death during all these years. “I long to meet you, to look at your faces and to visit your blessed ancient land and the cradle of civilization,” the Pope said.

It is expected that the purpose of the Pope’s visit is to preserve the rest of the Christians in Iraq. According to the estimation of the charity aid of the Church in Need, the numbers of Christians have decreased from 1.4 million to under 250,000 since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, especially in the cities of northern Iraq. Many Christians were killed and fled from 2014 to 2017 due to the Islamic State occupation and due to their atrocities, persecution, and violence against the Christian areas. The Pope yearns for meeting the dwindling Christian communities in Mosul, Qaraqosh, and Nineveh plains where these regions had suffered from the atrocities of ISIS in 2014 and people had been compelled to flee.

The world is waiting for the most significant historic meeting between the 90-year-old Shia Muslim cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and the 84-year-old Pope Francis in the Shiite shrine city of Najaf. The expected meeting is seen as a real chance to enhance the bonds of fraternity between the Muslims and Christians and to lighten the impact of the islamophobia concept that swept Europe and America due to the terrorism actions that happened in Europe. This expected meeting that will be by Saturday signifies a historic moment when the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani meets Pope Francis, illustrating the fraternal bonds to make people live in peace and tranquility.

Back in February 2019, the Pontiff Francis and Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Cairo’s al-Azhar mosque and the most prestigious leader in Sunni Islam, agreed and signed the declaration of fraternity, affirming peace among all nations. The two parties in this document adhere to fight extremism in every place in the world. If the Pontiff and the Grand Ayatollah sign a document like the declaration of fraternity, this will give Najaf’s Marjiya a very great impact, and this move will be seen as the first step to decrease the religious tensions and fill the gap of the clash of civilization. This document, if it is enacted, will have a great impact to make peace prevailing and encouraging Muslims and Christians to live in peaceful coexistence.

Ur, which is the oldest city in the world, is to be visited by the pontiff. It is considered the biblical birthplace of Ibraham, the common prophet to the Christians, Muslims, and Judaism and the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is expected that there will be prayers in Ziggurat where this place is one of UNESCO world heritage sites. This visit to this historic site will help the landmark to polarize people from Iraq and outside to visit it after years of negligence and ignorance attention to its importance and the vital role that can help Iraq to increase the public income.

The papal visit has many different messages to the people of Iraq. Firstly, the expected meeting with the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani reflects the fraternal and human stances, and this meeting underlines the important role played by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani after the US-led-invasion in 2003. Secondly, his visit to Ur to pray there is a message of the peaceful coexistence between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, trying to point out that all these three religions emerged from one source. Thirdly, the Pope endeavors to be with the Christians who suffer from the past events of persecution, humiliation, and atrocities. His presence among them is a message of tranquility, serenity, peace, and contentment to live in Iraq with the Muslims and to abandon fighting against others. Finally, the Pope’s visit to Iraq pays the world’s attention to the religious importance of Iraq and the significant role that can be played by Iraq.

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Restart Iran Policy by Stopping Tehran’s Influence Operations

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Another US administration is trying to figure out its Iran policy. And, as always, the very regime at the core of the riddle is influencing the policy outcome. Through the years, the clerical rulers of Iran have honed the art of exploiting America’s democratic public sphere to mislead, deceive, confuse, and influence the public and government.

Yet Washington still does not have a proper taxonomy of policy antidotes when it comes to Tehran’s influence operations.

Arguments dictated by Iranian intelligence services echo in think tanks and many government agencies. These include the extremely misguided supposition that the murderous regime can be reformed or is a reliable negotiating partner for the West; or that there is no other alternative but to deal with the status quo.

How has Tehran been able to deceive some in the US into believing such nonsense? First, by relying on the policy of appeasement pursued by Western governments. And second, through its sophisticated influence operations facilitated by that policy.

Consider three recent instances.

First. Just last month, an Iranian “political scientist” was charged by the Justice Department for acting as an unregistered agent of Iran and secretly receiving money from its mission in New York. “For over a decade, Kaveh Afrasiabi pitched himself to Congress, journalists, and the American public … for the benefit of his employer, the Iranian government, by disguising propaganda as objective polic1y analysis and expertise,” the Justice Department noted.

Afrasiabi has an extensive body of published work and television appearances. In July 2020, according to the Justice Department, he linked many of his books and hundreds of articles in an email written to Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, saying: “Without [Zarif’s] support none of this would have been possible!”

Second. Across the Atlantic, one of Zarif’s official diplomats in Europe, Assadollah Assadi, was convicted and given a 20-year prison sentence by a Belgian court on February 4 for trying to bomb an opposition rally in the outskirts of Paris in June 2018.

Court documents revealed that Assadi crisscrossed Europe as Tehran’s intelligence station chief, paying and directing many agents in at least 11 European countries.

Assadi’s terrorist plot in 2018 was foiled at the last minute. The main target was Maryam Rajavi, the President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). Hundreds of Western lawmakers and former officials were also in attendance.

Third. Unable to harm its opposition through terrorism, the regime has expanded its influence operations against NCRI’s main constituent organization the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), which Tehran considers its arch nemesis.

For decades, the mullahs have misled, deceived, and confused America’s Iran policy by disseminating considerable disinformation about the democratic opposition. This has in turn resulted in bungled American responses to Tehran’s threats.

In a breaking revelation this month, a former Iranian intelligence operative wrote a letter to the UN Secretary General, outlining in glaring detail how the regime’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) recruits, pays, and controls dozens of agents across Europe to influence policy.

Forty-one-year-old Hadi Sani-Khani wrote that he was approached by intelligence agents who lured him into the Iranian embassy in Tirana, Albania (MEK’s headquarters). He said he wants to go back to Iran. On one condition, the embassy responded: Cooperate with the regime’s intelligence against the MEK. He subsequently met with the regime’s intelligence chief, Fereidoun Zandi, who coordinated a network of paid agents in Albania since 2014. The intelligence chief was later expelled by Albanian authorities along with the regime’s ambassador.

Khani was paid 500 euros per month to write and publish anti-MEK articles and also send copious amounts of similar propaganda to members of the European parliament. Dozens of websites are operated by Tehran’s intelligence, some of which are, astonishingly, undeclared sources for unsuspecting Western journalists, think tanks and government agencies when it comes to the MEK.

In many cases, reporters have met directly with the regime’s intelligence agents for their stories. In September 2018, for example, according to Khani, a reporter from German newspaper Der Spiegel traveled to Albania. Khani recalls: “We met the Der Spiegel reporter in a Café in Ramsa district in Zagozi square. Each of us then told her lies about the MEK which we had been given in preparation of the meeting. … [Later on,] she occasionally asked me questions about the MEK which I then raised with the embassy and provided her the response I received.”

Der Spiegel published the story on February 16, 2019, parts of which were copied from websites affiliated with Iran’s intelligence service. Following a lawsuit, a court in Hamburg ordered Der Spiegel to remove the defamatory segments of its article.

These same agents also met with a New York Times correspondent at the same Café, who subsequently wrote a piece against the MEK, regurgitating the very same allegations.

The mullahs’ influence operations are a serious obstacle to formulating an effective US policy toward Tehran. As long as the regime’s agents are allowed to exploit America’s public sphere, cultivate important relationships, infiltrate the media and think tanks, and influence serious policy deliberations in Washington through a flood of falsehoods, America will be at a substantial disadvantage.

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China in the Middle East: Stepping up to the plate

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By defining Chinese characteristics as “seeking common ground while reserving differences,” a formula that implies conflict management rather than conflict resolution, Messrs. Sun and Wu were suggesting that China was seeking to prepare the ground for greater Chinese engagement in efforts to stabilize the Middle East, a volatile region that repeatedly threatens to spin out of control.

The scholars defined China’s goal as building an inclusive and shared regional collective security mechanism based on fairness, justice, multilateralism, comprehensive governance, and the containment of differences.

By implication, Messrs. Sun and Wu’s vision reflected a growing realization in China that it no longer can protect its mushrooming interests exclusively through economic cooperation, trade, and investment.

It also signalled an understanding that stability in the Middle East can only be achieved through an inclusive, comprehensive, and multilateral reconstructed security architecture of which China would have to be part.

Messrs. Sun and Wu’s article, published in a prominent Chine policy journal, was part of a subtle and cautious Chinese messaging that was directed towards players on all sides of the Middle East’s multiple divides.

To be clear, China, like Russia, is not seeking to replace the United States, certainly not in military terms, as a dominant force in the Middle East. Rather, it is gradually laying the groundwork to capitalize on a US desire to rejigger its regional commitments by exploiting US efforts to share the burden more broadly with its regional partners and allies.

China is further suggesting that the United States has proven to be unable to manage the Middle East’s myriad conflicts and disputes, making it a Chinese interest to help steer the region into calmer waters while retaining the US military as the backbone of whatever restructured security architecture emerges.

Implicit in the message is the assumption that the Middle East may be one part of the world in which the United States and China can simultaneously cooperate and compete; cooperate in maintaining regional security and compete on issues like technology.

That may prove to be an idealized vision. China, like the United States, is more likely to discover that getting from A to B can be torturous and that avoiding being sucked into the Middle East’s myriad conflicts is easier said than done.

China has long prided itself on its ability to maintain good relations with all sides of the divide by avoiding engagement in the crux of the Middle East’s at times existential divides.

Yet, building a sustainable security architecture that includes conflict management mechanisms, without tackling the core of those divides, is likely to prove all but impossible. The real question is at what point does China feel that the cost of non-engagement outweighs the cost of engagement?

The Middle East is nowhere close to entertaining the kind of approaches and policies required to construct an inclusive security architecture. Nevertheless, changes to US policy being adopted by the Biden administration are producing cracks in the posture of various Middle Eastern states, albeit tiny ones, that bolster the Chinese messaging.

Various belligerents, including Saudia Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Turkey, but not Iran or Israel, at least when it comes to issues like Iran and the Palestinians, have sought to lower the region’s temperature even if fundamentals have not changed.

A potential revival of the 2015 international Iran nuclear agreement could provide a monkey wrench.

There is little doubt that any US-Iranian agreement to do so would focus exclusively on nuclear issues and would not include other agenda points such as ballistic missiles and Iranian support for non-state actors in parts of the Middle East. The silver lining is that ballistic missiles and support for non-state actors are issues that Iran would likely discuss if they were embedded in a discussion about restructured regional security arrangements.

This is where China may have a significant contribution to make. Getting all parties to agree to discuss a broader, more inclusive security arrangement involves not just cajoling but also assuaging fears, including whether and to what degree Chinese relations with an Iran unfettered by US sanctions and international isolation would affect Gulf states.

To be sure, while China has much going for it in the Middle East such as its principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of others, its affinity for autocracy, and its economic weight and emphasis on economic issues, it also needs to manage pitfalls. These include reputational issues despite its vaccine diplomacy, repression of the Uyghurs in the north-western province of Xinjiang, and discrimination against other Muslim communities.

China’s anti-Muslim policies may not be an immediate issue for much of the Muslim world, but they continuously loom as a potential grey swan.

Nevertheless, China, beyond doubt, alongside the United States can play a key role in stabilizing the Middle East. The question is whether both Beijing and Washington can and will step up to the plate.

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