Saudi to champion press freedom and women's rights

AT FIRST glance, the proposition seems absurd. A Saudi diplomat and politician is a leading contender to become the next director-general of Unesco, the UN agency which promotes, among other things, women's equality, press freedom and democracy.

Ghazi Algosaibi - Saudi ambassador to London since 1992, poet, author, and as liberal minded a politician as his country has ever produced - sees no objection to his appointment as the world's spokesman for education, culture, science and freedom of speech. "The Saudi kingdom was the third country to sign the Unesco charter," he points out. "We have been loyal and generous members for 50 years. Who is going to say that we can belong to the club but that we have no right to stand for club secretary?"

Quite a lot of people, it seems.

Mr Algosaibi's personal qualifications to run Unesco - the UN educational, scientific and cultural organisation - are high. He is a former Saudi minister, with a reputation as a tough administrator, who promises (finally) to bring the bloated, top-heavy and unfocused Unesco bureaucracy in Paris under control. Within his own country, he led the successful campaign to give girls the same educational opportunities as boys.

He is a respected writer and thinker on the problems of Third World development, which has failed, he says, because it imposed faceless, economic development before promoting individual, human development.

If elected next month, he says, he would re-focus Unesco's efforts on the failing struggle against illiteracy (one billion people in the world cannot read) and the new threat posed by "computer illiteracy".

But opposition is growing within the Unesco administration, within the human rights industry and even within parts of the Arab world to the notion that the world cultural body might be led from November by a man who represents a country with no functioning democracy, no free press and harsh restrictions on the social rights and movements of women.

"Algosaibi, as a man, may be a good choice. Symbolically, his appointment would destroy whatever credibility this organisation has left," a senior Unesco staff member from a Western country said last week. "How could we be taken seriously as an agency which promotes equality and freedom of thought and speech if our director-general comes from a country which is a by-word for narrowness and repression?" The problem, as a diplomat accredited to Unesco said, is that "Algosaibi is an impressive man, amid a bunch of candidates who are mostly as dull as ditch-water".

There have been seven Unesco directors-general since 1946 and five of them have been Westerners (including the first holder of the post, the British novelist and scientist Aldous Huxley, and the present incumbent, Frederico Mayor from Spain). One of the two exceptions was Amadou M'Bow, from Senegal, whose disastrous tenure up to 1987 - unproven allegations of corruption and the promotion of a Soviet and Third World influenced "new" concept of press "freedom" - led Britain and the US to quit the organisation. Britain rejoined in 1997.

It is generally accepted that the new director-general must come from Asia or the Arab world, or possibly eastern Europe. There are 11 candidates, but only four are reckoned to have any chance.

Mr Algosaibi has the backing of the Arab League and the Islamic Conference. The Japanese ambassador to Paris, Koichiro Matsuuro - regarded as worthy but uninspiring - has the support of most Asian countries. The former Australian foreign minister, Gareth Evans - not at all a dull man - is an outside possibility and will probably get Britain's first preference vote (although no official decision has been made).

The joker in the pack is a late entrant, an Egyptian World Bank official called Ismael Serageldin, who is being promoted by radical Arab intellectuals and 32 Nobel laureates as the man to stop the Saudi candidate from getting the job. Mr Serageldin is running on a "human rights" ticket, covertly supported by the Egyptian government. As the Saudi's supporters point out, however, Egypt's human rights record is scarcely better than Riyadh's.

Mr Algosaibi, while campaigning for the post in Paris last week, said in an interview with the Independent on Sunday: "I would not bet a penny on myself winning the job. On the other hand, if you offered me a wager that the job will go either to myself or to Mr Matsuuro, I would say `name your price'. The others simply don't have the votes."

According to one rumour, the Japanese government has hinted to Riyadh that it might withdraw its own candidate - giving Mr Algosaibi a free run - if it gets favourable terms in an oil export agreement. Mr Algosaibi dismissed this as "absurd", saying: "There is not one chance in a million that Japan will withdraw its candidate."

Asked how Western countries are lining up (initially, there is a secret vote in the 58-strong management committee), he said: "I don't want to embarrass anyone, but it's like a choice between a wife and a mistress. People tend to talk about values but vote for their interests." Mr Algosaibi, it seems, has no personal problem with freedom of speech.

A bluff, humorous, engaging man, the ambassador insists that, as Unesco director-general, he would be fiercely independent of Saudi - or wider Arab - influence. He would pursue the institution's moral crusades for freedom of the press and scientific inquiry and equal opportunities for women.

"The fact is that I, from a Saudi background, would have more credibility in pushing this agenda than a Western director-general would," said Mr Algosaibi. "When the West talks of human rights, there are many countries in the world who think, `Ah, that's what they say now, but just a few years ago, they were colonising us and exploiting us.' I believe deeply in freedom but I also believe in the need to respect the traditions, and capacity for change, of all cultures and countries."

UNESCO FIASCO

UNESCO HAS been mostly a source of controversy, or boredom, for the world's press. The work that the UN agency does to promote literacy, or science, or to protect the world's cultural heritage, is generally ignored.

Even Unesco insiders, however, sometimes despair of the treacly bureaucracy of its headquarters, not far from the Eiffel Tower. The outgoing Director- General, Frederico Mayor of Spain, is credited with rescuing the organisation from the worst abuses of the era of Amadou M'Bow, when 70 per cent of Unesco funds went on administration.

However, Mr Mayor's term is also ending in controversy. Unesco unions recently accused him of creating 14 unnecessary new posts at director level and filling them with people close to him, rather than addressing staff shortages in the field. Earlier this year, it was discovered that a substantial part of a Unesco school programme in Bosnia had been spent on buying sculptures for the pupils to admire. The sculptor was a relative of a senior Unesco official.

CORRUPTION

Although corruption and mismanagement were among the reasons given for the US and Britain leaving the organisation in 1984 and 1985, the Reagan and Thatcher governments also disapproved of the political positions taken by Mr M'Bow. His "new world information order" was a Soviet-approved attempt to set rules for press "freedom" and objectivity which trampled on Western press traditions.

Unesco supporters say the organisation does much useful work but should now focus itself more sharply on key issues, such as the battle against illiteracy, in both poor countries and the industrialised world.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Workshop Deputy & Production Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A rare and exciting role has arisen within thi...

Recruitment Genius: HR Assistant

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a keen...

Recruitment Genius: Finance Assistant

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion, this multi-ac...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Specialist

£21000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity for an e...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat