Qatar Leads Race to Head UNESCO, Arab States Work to Thwart Bid as Diplomatic Row Continues

UN battle between Qatar and Egypt has its roots in the crisis engulfing Qatar and its Gulf Arab neighbours which have severed diplomatic, trade and travel ties

President Donald Trump meets with Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani at the Palace Hotel during the United Nations General Assembly, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017, in New York
President Donald Trump meets with Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani at the Palace Hotel during the United Nations General Assembly, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017, in New York AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Arab states may want their turn at the helm of UNESCO, but the barbs hurled by Egypt at rival candidate Qatar during the vote highlights the fractious geopolitics paralysing the workings of the U.N. cultural agency.

The vote for a new leader of UNESCO, comes amid U.S. President Donald Trump's threats to pull the U.S. out of the agency over an alleged anti-Israel bias. Trump intervened in the crisis between Qatar and its Arab Sunni neighbors on the side of Saudi Arabia and has since had a contentious relationship with Qatar, which is seen as trending towards Iran in the region. 

The Paris-based body is known for designating World Heritage sites like the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria and Grand Canyon National Park, but it has struggled for relevance as it becomes increasingly hobbled by regional rivalries and a lack of money.

After two days of a secret ballot that could run until Friday, Qatar's Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari leads France's Audrey Azoulay and Egyptian hopeful Moushira Khattab. Three other candidates, including from Lebanon, trail.

The row between Qatar and Egypt has its roots in the crisis engulfing Qatar and its Gulf Arab neighbours which have severed diplomatic, trade and travel ties with Doha after accusing it of sponsoring hardline Islamist groups, a charge Qatar denies.

"The dispute has been bubbling for several months, but what we're seeing with the Arab candidates is that they are extremely divided. Some of the clashes are quite virulent," said one UNESCO ambassador.

Egypt, the Arab world's most populous state which has joined the boycott of Qatar, has not shied from making its feelings about Qatar's UNESCO bid clear.

In an interview with Egypt Today and retweeted by the foreign ministry, Egypt's top diplomat Sameh Shoukry suggested Qatar was using its financial power to influence UNESCO's 58-member executive council.

"It is an organisation that is owned by international society and cannot be sold to a particular state or individual," he was quoted as saying when asked about the Qatari candidate's campaign logo "I'm not coming empty handed."

A diplomat at Qatar's embassy in Paris declined to comment. A Qatari official at UNESCO's headquarters also declined immediate comment.

Egyptian candidate Khattab's first message on Twitter in three months was a re-tweet of an article in the Israeli press entitled "Israel bemoans emerging Qatari victory in UNESCO leadership vote."

Kawari, the Qatari candidate, has so far not reacted to the Egyptian allegations, simply tweeting on Wednesday: "Al-Kawari tipped to head UNESCO".

Voting lasts over a maximum five rounds. If the two finalists end level, they draw lots.

"You get the impression that some are playing politics and competing for the sake of having a post rather than actually wanting to secure the future of the organisation," said a European diplomat.