Qatar, France neck-and-neck for UNESCO chief

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On Thursday, just before the final round of votes, the USA said it planned to pull out of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization citing among other things its anti-Israel bias. Egypt's candidate for the UNESCO Director-General post, Moushira Khattab, maintained the third rank with 12 votes out of 58, following the withdrawal of Polad Bülbüloğlu of Azerbaijan on Tuesday a few hours before the beginning of the second round.

The withdrawal of the USA, which is meant to provide a fifth of UNESCO's funding, is a major blow for the Paris-based organisation founded after World War II to help protect cultural and natural heritage around the world.

The Qatari and French candidates, Hamad bin Abd elaziz alKawari and Audrey Azoulay garnered 18 votes each, Khattab garnered 13 votes, China's candidate Qian Tang 5 votes, and Lebanon's Vera El Khoury Lacoeuilhe 4 votes.

Arab states believe the job of director-general of the 195-member organisation should go to one of them for the first time, but regional tensions have complicated the task.

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China had nominated Qian, who has been serving as assistant director general of UNESCO since April 2010, to be the agency's head, but made a decision to withdraw after the latest round of voting yesterday, Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported.

UNESCO has been accused of bias in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it infuriated Israel and staunch ally the United States by granting full membership to Palestine in 2011.

Qatar's Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari and France's Audrey Azoulay are neck-and-neck in the race to head the UN's cultural body. The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations said al-Kawari "is unqualified to lead an institution whose mission is to strengthen ties between nations, promote dialog and understanding among diverse cultures and religions and protect the heritage of all peoples throughout the world".

However, UNESCO does not observe the kind of rotation by world region which is used when choosing a UN secretary general.