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Arab rivalries exposed as Egypt targets Qatar in UNESCO vote

PARIS (Reuters) - 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 paralyzing the workings of the U.N. cultural agency.

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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 neighbors 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 organization 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 organization,” said a European diplomat.

Reporting by John Irish; editing by Richard Lough and Richard Balmforth