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Volume 34, Number 2March/April 1983

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The Spokesmen

Arabs at the UN

Written and photographed by Aileen Vincent-Barwood

At the United Nations complex in New York, on the bank of the East River, a small, select group of Arab men and women have often provided the first contact - and sometimes the only contact -that many people, especially Americans, have had with the Middle East. Highly educated, literate in several languages, politically astute and well versed in more than one culture, they work, teach, travel, lecture, write books, give papers and serve with distinction on a variety of agencies which benefit the entire world. Many, in addition, have spouses distinguished in their own right and children who are often high achievers.

Their loyalty to their countries is, of course, unquestionable, but many nationals possess another loyalty as well: to the United Nations and to the concept of a global community dedicated to "safeguarding the fabric of international law and to ensuring world peace and security." Over their many years of service to this UN principle these men and women have acquired a world view of today's problems, a remarkable patience to work toward their solution and an enviable grasp of world politics. They are, in fact, a good example of what Lebanon's former ambassador to the UN, Ghassan Tueni, terms "the new Arab image."

"We refuse to be maintained any longer in a romantic position," Tueni said firmly. "The folkloric, the romantic Orientalism approach to the Arab must go, as must the days of seeing Arabs as objects, as consumer kings, as oil magnates...The new image now emerging is one of modernity, of the Arab and his ideals integrated with the universal culture, someone with much of value to contribute to the world's present civilization."

One example of such an Arab might well be Jaffar Allagany Saudi Arabia's chief representative to the United Nations, a lean and courteous diplomat whose soft-spoken words often conceal their firm purpose, a graduate magna cum laude in political science from New York City's Fordham University and a 26-year veteran of his country's foreign service.

Diplomacy, says Allagany, is a career he aspired to ever since he was a youngster growing up in Jiddah, one of two brothers and 10 sisters - a career in which his businessman father encouraged him by sending him to high school at Victoria College in Alexandria, Egypt, and on to higher education in the U.S.

His efforts were successful. He was accepted in the foreign service and after serving the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Foreign Affairs - first in Madrid, then in other European posts - he was sent in 1964 to the UN Mission in New York.

An avowed museum-goer, art lover and bibliophile - at present he is enlarging the mission's library of reference books on the Middle East - Allagany is widely read on many topics, particularly Islamic history. "Did you know," he asks, "that it was an Arab country which was the first foreign nation to recognize the government of the newly-constituted United States? The country was Morocco."

His work at the UN, of course, is of paramount importance, but he is also deeply committed to the establishment in New York City of an Islamic Center, with schools and shops, and a mosque for the more than 1.5 million members of the Tri-States area Islamic community (New York, New Jersey and Connecticut), a total that includes approximately 6,000 Muslims in the UN community.

Towards this end, land on 96th Street has already been purchased and leveled in anticipation of the collection of the $30 million needed to start building. "It is our religion which sustains us when we are away from our country and our families," Allagany says, "so it is important that our children do not miss out on being members of a Muslim community."

Two of Allagany's sons, Khalid and Hisham, attend the UN school; another son Tarik, attends the University of Portland; and a fourth son, Kamal, who has his M.B.A. degree, works at the Saudi-American Bank in Jiddah. His wife, Huda, is finishing up her degree in history at New York University.

About the UN and its importance, Jaffar Allagany is emphatic. "It's a pity that of the many facets of the UN, the only one constantly in the limelight is the political one. Because of a handful of countries who consistently ignore the UN's resolutions, this aspect of it is often a failure. But we've had enormous achievements! Human rights. Disaster relief. Worldwide economic, industrial and labor cooperation. Population. Agriculture. The World Food Program - Saudi Arabia is the largest cash contributor to that, giving approximately $55 million a year for each of three years. No, you cannot say, as some are doing these days, that the UN is not an important force in the world today."

A similar opinion is heard from Hala Kittani, of Iraq, since September, 1975, the person in charge of the Middle East section of UNICEF's Information Division. A slim, beautiful graduate of Vassar, the only child of Iraq's first ambassador to the United States and the niece of a former Iraqi prime minister, Hala Kittani says that "the United Nations has been under heavy criticism for a long time but the UN is necessary - think of what the world would be without it! What we must do is forget about our image and get on with the job. There's much to be done."

Though her responsibilities are many, Hala Kittani's present priorities are: providing information on what the use of infant formula feeding may be doing to the babies of the developing countries; cooperating with the governments in some of those countries to assist, through information and education, the efforts of Prince Talal ibn Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud, of Saudi Arabia, UNICEF's special envoy and president of the Arab Gulf Program for the UN Development Organizations (AGFUND), to improve the health and well-being of the world's children.

To Hala Kittani, Prince Talal's program is immensely rewarding. A mother herself - her 15-year old son Dara is now living in Baghdad to learn Arabic - she speaks with knowledge and with emotion about the poverty and hunger of the world's children. She is dedicated to doing what she can to ease their lot and, through her job, helps design and present information on UNICEF which will help raise funds to further the agency's work.

Like all the agencies of the United Nations, UNICEF is non-political. "We must be," Hala Kittani says adamantly. "We must remain free of all political strings or we will cease to be effective." It is a statement often heard among her colleagues, both Arab and non-Arab, and echoes Prince Talal's view that "it does not matter if the needy are Christian, Muslim or Jewish; politics makes such distinctions, humanitarianism does not."

Helping care for the Third World's children is but one of the worldwide programs that the UN's more than 15 agencies and their various branches are involved in - and in which Arab representatives play important roles. Riyad Tabarra of Lebanon, for example, who, prior to his recent appointment as resident UN representative in Tunisia, headed up the Middle East section of the Economic Council for West Asia (ECWA), a division of the UN's Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA). Financed by seven Western and five Arab nations, this program, with a budget of $138 million a year, seeks, through information, census-taking and educational programs, to assist member nations in family planning projects.

According to Tabarra, large world populations eat up the world's resources and have a devastating effect on the land, the environment, the economy and, consequently, the stability of the world. Such surveys as the census taken recently by ECWA are valuable because they show developing trends - in this case a continuing decline in the fertility of the world's population - indicating to the population experts that global stability could be reached by the year 2040, despite apparently enormous growth in such areas as Africa and South America.

With the help of the UN's education efforts, the infant mortality rate is also decreasing, surveys show. In the long run, this will also help bring down the birth rate, Tabarra says, since faith that a child will live brings greater security to the family and a corresponding belief that it is safe to have fewer children.

Although the United Arab Emirates do not have to concern themselves with an over-population problem, they are among the Gulf countries who are donors, through AGFUND, to UNICEF's program to help mothers and children in the rest of the world.

The United Arab Emirates mission to the United Nations is headed by Ambassador Fahim Sultan Al-Qasimi, one of six brothers and five sisters of the ruling family of Sharjah and Ras al-Khaimah. A lawyer with a degree in international law, and a master's degree in international politics from Johns Hopkins University, Ambassador Al-Qasimi is married to Linda Usra Soffan, a Lebanese-American whose book, The Status of Women in the U.A.E., was recently published.

A modest man who speaks fluent English and French, paints when he has time, plays chess when he can find a partner, and plays the 'ud, a string instrument, for his own pleasure, Ambassador Al-Qasimi admits that he sometimes finds the UN "frustrating," but says that it is nonetheless an important forum.

"The UN is not Aladdin's lamp," he insists. "It is, rather, a place of meeting and discssion for people of different cultures, different ideals, different concerns. You listen to each other's problems, get to know and respect them, and work in concert - when possible - to solve them. Without the UN it would be difficult to do this. You might say that, despite our difficulties in the Security Council, we are the world's peacekeepers."

Ambassador Al-Qasimi joined his country's foreign ministry after getting his first law degree from Cairo University. He served four years at the UN in Geneva as its permanent resident and consul-general, and has been in New York for the past two years.

A true diplomat, at home anywhere in the world, he nonetheless misses his country and his family and friends in Ras al-Khaimah. "The UAE is building up so rapidly" he says, "that sometimes when I go home I lose my way in my own country."

It is a comment often heard among the Middle East Arabs at the UN. Diplomats all, cosmopolites every one, their hearts and minds nonetheless still dwell in their homelands.

"What else would you expect?" asks Dr. Hazem Nuseibeh, Jordan's former UN ambassador, in his gruff, outspoken way. "Our roots, all that has made us what we are, are there."

And well he might say so, for his own illustrious family, the Nuseibehs of Jerusalem, is the oldest recognized family of that ancient city, reportedly dating back 1,400 years. Originally from Medina, the members of this Muslim family, as a sacred trust over centuries, have held the keys to Christendom's holiest shrine, the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

Though he now calls Amman his home, Ambassador Nuseibeh was born in Jerusalem, spent his childhood there, attended Rawda College, and served as an elected member of the municipal council and later as a member of the executive committee, once the highest governing organization of Arab Jerusalem.

Like Jaffar Allagany, he attended Victoria College in Alexandria, where, some years later, King Hussein would also go and which then was considered the finest English public school in the Middle East. Upon graduation, young Hazem was accepted at Cambridge, but just a week prior to his departure for England, World War II broke out and he went instead to the American University of Beirut, where, in 1943, he was graduated with a B. A. degree.

In Jerusalem, during the next five years, he worked as a journalist with the Palestine Broadcasting Station, and studied law at the Jerusalem Law College, graduating in 1948. He then headed for Princeton - to the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs - where he proceeded to earn three more degrees: a master's in public affairs and a master's and a Ph.D. in political science. Finally, in 1962, he was appointed Foreign Minister of Jordan.

Despite his role as diplomat, UN representative and, in 1982, a member of the 15-member Security Council, Hazem Nuseibeh is irrepressibly and determinedly outspoken on the UN and on U. S.-Arab relations. "The Arab World has a longtime friendship with the United States, dating back to the 1920s, when American doctors, teachers and missionaries gave us the early impression of Americans as a dedicated, serving people with high ideals. In fact, in 1920, Syria spontaneously chose the U.S. to administer its League of Nations mandate. Then in the late 1940's - by design - that long accord was broken. We still have a good relationship but now it is merely through inertia.

"The UN has great potential importance, but it is continually frustrated because the Security Council cannot translate its resolutions into action. The result is that we get one resolution after another being consistently ignored, we see blatant violation of the most basic tenets of the UN charter, of international law, of human rights, of both The Hague and Geneva Conventions - and nothing is done. This must change."

Lebanon's equally outspoken Ghassan Tueni - now a member of a team trying to negotiate the withdrawal of Israel's invasion forces from Beirut and southern Lebanon - agreed. "The Security Council must be revamped into an instrument of negotiation, rather than just a forum of debate," he maintains. "In the Security Council as it is now, we mistake resolutions for solutions; and we endlessly debate the exact meaning of a word, a line, a phrase, while human lives are endangered cities in flames, societies disrupted, and the very existence of countries challenged anc destroyed."

One of the most widely-known of the Arabs at the UN, former Ambassador Tueni was much in demand on the lecture circuit, traveling to speak to audiences as diverse as West Point cadets, the U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce, the congregation of St. John the Divine Cathedral, Harvard University, the U.S. War College? and an international seminar in Sali, Yugoslavia, where he spoke on "Freedom of the Press in a Developing Society".

Some months back, after a Paris lecture, Tueni, seated in the handsome leather chair of his teacher and mentor, Charles Malik, revealed both his skepticism and his hopes for the UN.

"The idealists are disappointed that the UN is not an international government, and so they get frustrated," he says. "The realists, of which I am one, realize the UN is not a super world government, not an international court, not a special club of privileged persons, but an association of all the countries of the world that mirrors what the world thinks and believes. It is a point of encounter in times of crisis, an opportunity for conflict control and crisis management, and if it did not exist we would have to invent something just like it."

While Tueni was at the UN, his wife Nadia and younger son Makram lived in New York, but his older son Gibran stayed in Beirut, to work on the family newspaper, An-Nahar, founded by Tueni's father, Gabriel Tueni, in 1933. An-Nahar, according to Tueni-owner, publisher and former editor-in-chief - has always spoken out for freedom of opinion, civil liberties, human rights, a free press and democratic government.

With a B.A. in philosophy from the American University of Beirut and an M. A. in government from Harvard, Tueni has taught both political science and law, was a member and deputy speaker of the house in the Lebanese parliament from 1951-1957, later a vice-premier and Minister of National Education and Information. At various times he has also served as Minister of Social Affairs, of Industry and Petroleum, and in recent years, worked with former President Sarkis in a number of diplomatic capacities. He first went to the UN in 1947 as press attache for Camille Chamoun, then chairman of the Lebanese delegation, and returned in 1977 at the request of President Sarkis to handle the crisis then brewing in South Lebanon. He expected to stay six months and remained four years.

Tueni, again, is representative of the high quality of Arabs at the UN. Other examples include Faith Hanna, formerly of the Mission of Lebanon, who is asumnta cum laude graduate of Boston University and author of the recently-published An American Mission - The Role of the American University of Beirut; Diana Takieddine, a widely acclaimed concert pianist, who works long hours for the UN's Third Committee, which concerns itself with social, human and cultural rights, refugees, women and children, and global hunger. On the same committee are Faize Aboul-Naga of Egypt and Hala Kittani.

Through contributions to AGFUND and the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the small countries of the Arabian Gulf - Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman - contribute through philanthropy as well as regular membership to help solve global problems.

Bahrain," says Muhammad Abdul Ghaffar, that country's first secretary and acting representative to the UN, "knows what it is to be poor. Before oil we had only pearls. Now we are eager to help." A former journalist, political scientist, historian and specialist in Islamic political theory, this young man of 32 has impressive credentials: an M. A. in political science from the New School for Social Research in New York City and a Ph.D. in comparative politics and inter national relations from the State University of New York. As a child in primary school in the 1950's - before the days of TV and magazines in Bahrain, as he likes to point out - he distinguished himself in history and geography.

"I used to make a list of the countries of the world," he says, "and learn their capital cities and all I could about them. Then I'd plague my friends by asking them questions, which, of course, they couldn't answer. It didn't make me popular with them, I can tell you!" He is proud that his own children, five-year-old Mo'ath, and two year-old Ahmad, are avid learners who both speak Arabic and English fluently and are at home in several cultures. This, their father feels, is important, because the world is changing and future generation must be prepared.

"Eighteenth and nineteenth century politics are out-of-date," he comments. "There is a new global perspective now, the world system theory of international relations, the interdependence of nations. This requires global negotiations. Today, no country can live independently. In the UN we see this happening. Whether the major powers like it or not, the Third World nations are a bloc."

His excellency Mahmoud Aboul Nasr, Oman's UN Ambassador, puts it another way: "We are agreed on the principles though we may differ in our approach to them." As an example he cites the emphasis which the western nations put on civil and political rights, as compared to the Third World nations, which emphasize economic and social rights.

"If you ask me which is more important, having five political parties or having food, health care, education and work to do," he says, "I will tell you that having five political parties is a luxury when you are in a race against time to stave off misery and hunger."

Criticism of the UN doesn't bother him. "Without criticism there'd be no improvement," he says. "You seldom hear of the UN's social and economic achievements, the eradication of malaria and polio, the wars we've stopped, the hunger we've averted, the misery and poverty we've alleviated."

Egyptian by birth, Mahmoud Aboul-Nasr has spent 21 years at the UN. Five years ago he was asked by Sultan Qaboos to open Oman's Mission to the UN, where he now has five young Omani diplomats-in-training. He is a graduate of Cairo University Law School, speaks four languages, has his Ph.D. in international law, plays chess for recreation, and is the son of a politician who wanted him to be the same. Instead, he committed himself and his family to an international life. His Egyptian-born wife Soraya and son are in New York and his daughter works for the UN in Cairo.

Like Oman, Qatar is a comparative newcomer to the UN. In March, 1972, Ambassador Jasim Jamal, leaving his postas Director General of Cultural Affairs at the Ministry of Education in Doha, came to New York to open the UN mission.

It was not his first time in the United States. Ten years earlier he had arrived here with only a few words of English, no friends, and no experience outside his own country, to attend Northeastern Mississippi State University on a government scholarship; the first Qatari student to come to the U.S.A., he admits it was a difficult time.

Last year he was chairman of the UN's Fourth Committee, dealing with decolonization, and it was then, he says, that he saw how much the UN had accomplished over the years. He notes that there were over 120 items on last year's General Assembly agenda alone and though he says he is often discouraged over the lack of progress in some areas - notably disarmament - he is still optimistic.

"The interests of the superpowers often conflict with those of small countries like Qatar," he says, "but we must keep trying to get a new basis for global negotiations. We must do everything we can to protect the UN. It is the only hope for small nations."

Like many of those serving at the UN, Ambassador Jamal misses home, family, friends and country. Since his daughters Aisha, Fatima and Hessa attend school in Qatar, his wife Musa must stay with them, visiting him only in the summer - an example of how delegates must sometimes disrupt their personal life to serve a larger cause.

Similarly Ismat Kittani, Iraq's Undersecretary for foreign affairs and president of the 36th session of the General Assembly which ended last September spends much of his time commuting between New York and the Middle East, much as he has done since his assignment to the UN in 1964 from the Iraqi Foreign Service. Among the many international positions he has held are: delegate to the World Health Assembly, member of the governing body of the International Labor Organization, chairman of the World Health Assembly's Committee on Financial and Legal Matters, rapporteur-general of the Fifth Summit Conference of the Non-Aligned Countries, and chairman of the political committee at the Sixth Conference, president of the Conference on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and the holder of executive positions up to the rank of assistant secretary-general in the UN Secretariat.

A man of recognized diplomatic skill, a quarter of a century of whose life has been dedicated to the UN, he was born in Iraq in 1928, received his B. A. in political science and English from Knox College in Illinois, and was for a while a high school teacher in Iraq. As a 19-year-old sophomore in college he wrote in his notebook:

The fact that a person comes from a certain geographic, political, economic, ethnic, religious or other background should not be a source of either pride or shame for him, for the simple reason that he had nothing to do with it. But, after having been given a certain chance, if any ethnic, political, economic, religious, cultural or geographic group is either proud of a person or ashamed of him, that is something he has to account for.

It is a view he has tried to live by all his life.

This handful of Arabs, of course, is but part of the 1,000 serving the UN. It is, therefore, perhaps appropriate to conclude with the career of Leila Doss of Egypt, Assistant Secretary-General for Personnel Services, who considers herself and all who work for the UN as "international civil servants."

As the person responsible for the recruitment, assignment and termination of 18,000 Secretariat employees from 157 countries, she hopes to forge an independent international civil service which does not seek or accept instructions from any government.

"I'm a loyal Egyptian," she says, "but when I'm working for the UN I'm loyal to the UN." Such an attitude, she maintains, is both necessary and vital for a strong UN. "And a strong UN is in everyone's interest," she says.

Though she's had many job offers during her more than 34 years with the UN, she would work at no other job. "I believe in one world," she says firmly, and her life to date verifies this.

Born into an "internationally-minded" family in Asyut, Egypt, in 1921, she became, in 1943, the first woman broadcaster and program manager in the Egyptian State Radio. After five years there, she spent the next 20 serving the UN, starting in 1948 at Lake Success and moving successively through posts in New York, Geneva, Cairo, Bangkok and Rangoon. She initiated the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in Vienna in 1968 while serving for four years there as UN Information Service director. Next she was chief of information services for UNICEF's 1979 Year of the Child (see Aramco World, January-February 1980), then the director of the Division of Economic and Social Information in the Department of Public Information. For the last four years she has served as vice-chairman on the UN appointment and promotion board. One of her priorities in her new position is to see that more women move up into responsible positions.

Her chief problem, she says, is "never enough time," and she often puts in 10 and 12 hour days to try to find more. Somewhere in between she manages to pursue hobbies of sewing, international cooking, music and theater; the UN, however, is her paramount interest.

"If you don't believe in the UN," she asks, "what do you believe in? If it fails it's the fault of its members, for not accepting its resolutions, for not taking care of the Third World, for not respecting human rights, for not negotiating but fighting."

And, she adds, "If we don't learn to live together we will all die together."

Aileen Vincent-Barwood, once a freelance correspondent for CBC, lived in Saudi Arabia for several years and has contributed both articles and fiction to U. S. periodicals.

This article appeared on pages 12-19 of the March/April 1983 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1983 images.