French former culture minister and newly elected head of UNESCO Audrey Azoulay addresses a press conference following her election on October 13, 2017 at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. Former French foreign minister Audrey Azoulay was selected to head the embattled UN cultural agency UNESCO after defeating her Qatari rival by two votes in a cliffhanger election on October 13. Thomas Samson / AFP

French former culture minister Audrey Azoulay was named to head the UN’s embattled cultural agency on Friday, beating her Qatari rival after a politically charged contest clouded by Gulf tensions and accusations of anti-Israel bias.

Azoulay, 49, came from behind after six rounds of voting to defeat Hamad bin Abdulaziz Al-Kawari, also a former culture minister, after he failed to pick up support from other Gulf states which are part of a Saudi-led coalition blockading Qatar. The vote was 30 to 28.

The campaign to succeed UNESCO’s outgoing chief Irina Bokova was overshadowed by Washington’s announcement Thursday that it planned to withdraw from the Paris-based body after years of tensions over decisions seen as critical of Israel.

Israel itself announced shortly afterwards that it would follow suit.

Azoulay, who is Jewish of Moroccan origin, will face the difficult task of trying to persuade the United States and Israel to remain as members, as well as tackling the allegations of anti-Israel bias.

Just as daunting will be her job of reforming the agency struggling under the weight of a bureaucracy that has become unwieldy over the seven decades since its foundation.

French President Emmanuel Macron hailed her victory on Twitter, saying: “France will continue to fight for science, education and culture in the world.”

Speaking to journalists before Friday’s vote, Azoulay said if elected she would “restore the effectiveness and credibility” of UNESCO, which she said was undergoing a “deep political crisis”.

Azoulay had edged out Egyptian rights activist Moushira Khattab earlier Friday as the main challenger to Al-Kawari, the frontrunner until the final run-off.

Arab states believed the job of director-general of the 195-member organisation should go to one of them for the first time, but regional rivalries and the US and Israeli withdrawals undercut their ambitions.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, who was in Paris for the vote, “urged all his friends to vote for France” instead of Qatar in the final round, a member of Khattab’s delegation told AFP.

Egypt is part of the coalition led by Saudi Arabia that has been blockading strategically placed Qatar since June over its alleged support for radical Islamists and its ties to Iran.

Shoukry also raised concerns over the integrity of the vote in a meeting with outgoing UNESCO chief Irina Bokova, his spokesman said.

Arab divisions
In the face of the Arab divisions, France presented Azoulay as a consensus figure who could mend fences and soothe tensions caused by recent resolutions against Israel.

“Now more than ever UNESCO needs a project… which restores confidence and overcomes political divisions,” the French foreign ministry said in a statement reacting to the US pullout.

Lebanon’s candidate Vera El-Khoury, who bowed out at the fourth round of voting, told AFP that the power game at play in the race had shown UNESCO members “did not give a damn” about the candidates’ programmes.

Qatar has generously funded UNESCO in recent years and lobbied intensively for the post, which would have helped bolster its international status at a time when it faces isolation in the Gulf.

Al-Kawari had also been dogged by old allegations of anti-Semitism after the Simon Wiesenthal Center accused him of remaining silent about anti-Semitic books at a fair in Doha when he was culture minister.

US walkout
UNESCO is best known for producing a list of World Heritage sites including tourist favourites such as the Grand Canyon or Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, but it also runs science, media training and cultural programmes internationally.

The US decision to withdraw, which is to take effect on December 31, 2018, underlined America’s drift away from international institutions under President Donald Trump.

Washington has walked out on UNESCO once before, in 1984, after a row over funding and alleged anti-US bias.

Washington returned to the fold in 2002, seeing UNESCO as a vehicle for combatting extremism in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks.

But in 2011 relations soured again after UNESCO admitted Palestine as a full member, prompting the US to cut its funding to the organisation, leaving a gaping hole in its finances.

In just over a year as culture minister under Socialist president Francois Hollande, Azoulay secured a budget increase for her ministry after years of deep cuts.