An interview with Dr. Ahmed Saleh Al-Sayid, UNESCO representative to YemenBringing nations together [Archives:2004/785/Community]

October 28 2004

By Rafeeq Yassin
For The Yemen Times

Yemen and UNESCO have had many bright achievements and cooperation for more than four decades. Yemen has received financing and support for many development projects, particularly those related to documentation, maintaining heritage, and preserving many old Yemeni historic cities such as the Old City of Sana'a, Shibam Hadhramout, Zabid, and the Al-Ameriah School in Al-Baidh'a.
Also, the organization gives much care for the diamond of the Red Sea, Socotra, through its repeated emphasis on preserving the environmental wealth of Yemeni natural protectorate. This goal will be achieved in co-ordination with the international organization and specialized scientific centers concerned with protecting protectorates around the world.
We are going to find out more about Yemen and UNESCO through this interview with Yemeni academic, Prof. Dr. Ahmed Saleh Al-Sayid, UNESCO representative of Yemen. He was a member of the executive council for two successive terms and as assistant general director for foreign affairs in the UNESCO. He has sought improvement of international cooperation between Yemen and UNESCO.
UNESCO's care in its strategies, programs, and plans of organizing a variety of scientific events in Yemen embodies the distinguished efforts of this talented personality that has targeted the cultural, educational and documentary relations since 1980.
Following are edited excerpts.

Q: Did the Yemeni Reunification affect Yemen-UNESCO relations?
A: There's no doubt about that. Yemen's new situation affected meaningfully its relations with the international organizations in general and the UNESCO in particular. Yemen made a qualitative transfer after the Reunification. After this civilized enterprise, I was happy when I was appointed as ambassador and representative of Yemen at the UNESCO. In fact, when I was a representative of the Arab Republic of Yemen before Reunification, I never forgot the cultural status of what was called the southern part, especially that it had no representative. I acted during that period as the representative of Yemen going beyond the borders and had received many telephonic calls from the scientific, cultural and educational mediums in the southern part for the sake of cooperation. I did my best in supporting those foundations in front of the UNESCO officials. Being the representative of the Arab Republic of Yemen was not a hindrance. On the contrary, I was very happy even before the Reunification, these issues are known and documented on the national and international levels.
I worked for both parts at the same time. Since then, Yemen's attitude has been changing. The Republic of Yemen, having only one international identity, gained a better position at the UNESCO that differs from the previous one in terms of international representation, size, population, geography and the future prerequisites. Yemen became in need for many things besides the international participation and the one identity of Yemen. This compelled us as representatives of Yemen at the UNESCO to make a transfer to the new period and new situation.

Q: Do the state and opposition in Yemen get your academic care? Is there enough study and scientific objective criticism?
A: The experience of state and opposition is undoubtedly distinctive. It's issues like that of press freedom which the UNESCO contributed to and in international conference was held in Sana'a. There are many issues and documents that recorded Sana'a Declaration of Press Freedom. Concerning the issue of state and opposition, we have many experiences now that are supposed to be taken care of to develop and support them and to enrich political and cultural partisanship. The issues of having many parties and founding opposition can invest all efforts and capabilities in order to improve this country which really needs efforts from all whether in the government or the opposition. The democratic experience in Yemen is of the experiences that we should be aware of improving it and ensuring that it won't be hindered, or it will be trouble to the whole country.

Q: At the beginning of the 1980s, the Palestinian cause was the main factor of the hostile attitudes of the U.S. and against UNESCO. Is there a positive improvement in the US attitudes towards Arab issues discussed at UNESCO?
A: The US has its own policy for UNESCO but we don't intervene in its policy. The organization presents a variety of aids in the fields of education, culture, science, and telecommunication to the Palestinian establishments and there are frequent visits of missions. There is also a joint committee between UNESCO and the Palestinian authority and it is concerned with coordinating and cooperating in the field of offering support for the Palestinian establishments. In fact, the US, after coming back to UNESCO, became a supporter for the organization in financing some enterprises in education, culture, science and telecommunication in Palestine. The political attitude is different. For example, when adopting any draft, the decision comes in favor of the Palestinian cause. We try to make a unanimous agreement but if we don't reach that, we take the votes democratically. But reaching a decision by majority won't be as strong as unanimous agreement. The conference of the organization held one year ago came out with some decisions related to supporting educational and cultural foundations in Palestine. The US and the UK were among the voters. We felt strong because we're executing many projects now; the Palestinian side was happy consequently. We support the Palestinian authority in various fields trying to avoid political attitude because we consider it should be discussed at the UN, New York.

Q: You once said UNESCO is a political organization that is not intervening in politics. Other consultants have since said it is political. What can you say now in this respect?
A: Despite our attempt not to interfere in the political issues and we leave them for the UN, politics is still available in the UNESCO programs and directions. This issue was realized by the founders of the UNESCO so when we refer to its basic constitution, we find that the political aspect is obvious. Generally speaking, it is enough to say it was founded after World War II for the sake of continuous international humanitarian work to prevent repeating the same mistakes of human crimes by nations that lead to a third war.
The founders thought of establishing this organization. This is a political thought for planting seeds of peace and culture of dialogue in the human minds. Therefore, the first sentence that was included in the preamble of UNESCO foundation constitution which states that “Because wars are founded in the human minds, castles of peace should be built in their minds.” This is seen as a political idea, but we will keep on devoting our international humanitarian endeavors throughout the fields of education, culture, science, and telecommunications. All that to achieve the goal of protecting humanity from wars and military conflicts and promote for adopting dialogue, developing and spreading culture of peace between different religions, supporting potential issues in the field of dialogue among civilizations and cultures between nations that are desirous for peace and cooperation.

Q: Are there future plans of the UNESCO in supporting Arab-European ideas and projects?
A: This is actually a new idea. Adopting such ideas and views is ascribed to the efforts of the national committees in both Europe and Arab area. These ideas were developed in UNESCO taking their way to be able to present the future projects in the field of developing the Europe-Arab dialogue. We discussed many issues in a meeting and an agreement with the people who are concerned with the Europe-Arab dialogue was reached stressing the successive UNESCO support for serving the purpose of improving this direction considering it really embodiment of the UNESCO constitution.
The dialogue, besides, is considered of the basic issues for we find there is misunderstanding among people and nations, though the individuals' dialogue is available. What we aim to get throughout a number of strategies and programs is that to reach to respect of others. I say 'others' meaning anything either culture, religion, credit, man, woman, child.
Thus any dialogue will improve such human issue and the UNESCO surely encourages it powerfully, that's why we'll support the recommendations of the consultant meeting that was held in Sana'a. I think the European and Arab national committees will play a vital role in the future in this respect. It is worth mentioning that UNESCO is considered the only one of the U.N. organizations that's distinguished with national committees for education, culture and sciences in all the country members. We are proud of that, so as soon as these committees get the required capabilities and there is encouragement for them, they contribute to peace and culture of dialogue among nations.

Q: What are the problems that hinder Europe-Arab relations?
A: As I have explained before that there is misunderstanding between nations in regard with Arab and Islamic culture and the religions views about each other. They view other religions as opposite, not united work to serve the same goals and human, cultural and scientific issues. In addition, there is a political quarrel when dealing with some issues. The Palestinian issue will stay a problem in the way of developing the potential projects in the field of Europe-Arab dialogue and the general relations unless it is justly solved by effective European attitudes that support the Palestinian people for regaining all their rights and stopping all the forms of destruction and oppression which are still getting worse and worse targeting their educational, scientific and cultural establishments. There is also another problem that's the inferior look at Arabs by themselves and by European as well. This is in fact a result of misunderstanding and the dialogue in my opinion is of the main issues to get rid of misunderstanding and to go on development of dialogue and exchanged respect for others' principles in order to make each civilization keep its own precepts. In other words, there should be neither marginalizing for others' principles nor opposing, labeling them infidel, humiliating them as happens sometimes by this or that culture or nation.

Q: Are there different European attitudes from American ones in dealing with Arab issues?
A: Undoubtedly, in my opinion, the closeness and proximity makes the European attitude much more close to our Arab mentality. Therefore we find positive attitudes by the European Union that are different from the American policies. The European policy is actually facing many troubles that are in varying the political attitudes of the European countries of the union. In spite of that, the members of the union are going in serious scientific steps towards the political unification and a new director for the European commissioner who is the Portugal prime minister. These positive orientations in the commissioner confirm that they are working to unify their viewpoints in order to avoid any problems that may make division between them in the future. Regarding the European attitude about the Palestinian issue, there is a difference between it and the American policy because the Europeans are much more aware of the reality of Arab conditions.