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.

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