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11 May, 2009

Jordanian Elected to Head World Tourism Body

Former Jordanian tourism minister Dr Taleb Rifai has been elected the new Secretary-General of the Madrid-based UN World Tourism Organisation for a four-year term beginning 2010.

The 31-member executive council, meeting May 7-8 in the African state of Mali, endorsed Dr Rifai, 60, by a majority vote of 20 as against 10 for his closest rival, Dr. Jee-chul Oh, the President and CEO of the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO).

A third candidate, Mr. Khalid Malik, a Pakistani, the UN Resident Coordinator in China, received one vote. A fourth candidate Mr. Arab Hoballah of Lebanon, presently Chief of Sustainable Consumption and Production in the UN Environment Programme, had to withdraw in the wake of legal advice that a country which had not paid its dues could not nominate a candidate for the job.

Dr Rifai, formerly the UNWTO’s deputy secretary general, will now become Secretary-General-elect until his nomination is confirmed by the general assembly of the 155-member, inter-governmental body in Kazakhstan this October. He will hold office until the end of 2013.

UNWTO sources said the final stage of the election turned into a “nasty showdown” as Dr Oh launched into a strong attack on allegedly poor corporate governance and assorted other wrongdoings in the UNWTO.

The undiplomatic attack caught everyone off guard, and forced Dr Rifai to set aside his prepared election statement and go into a point by point rebuttal.

“It was quite a tense moment,” said one source familiar with the proceedings in what was a closed meeting. “It seems to have backfired on Dr Oh with at least a few council members switching their votes at the last minute.”

The source said Dr Rifai was confident of winning with a tally of at least 18 votes but picked up two more than he expected. The vote is held by secret ballot.

After the vote, Dr Rifai said in his acceptance speech that he would seek to heal wounds by making Korea the first country he would visit. In turn, Dr Oh congratulated Dr Rifai for winning the nomination, but left Mali along with an entourage of more than 20 Korean representatives immediately after the election.

The electoral battle was fraught with politics and politicking.

For the first time, the pre-election manifestoes of all four candidates were posted on the UN WTO website. That led to a healthy and transparent discussion of prevailing issues confronting the global travel & tourism industry, the role of the UNWTO as well as ways to upgrade internal governance, boost funding and forge more global partnerships.

Until early last year, after it became official that former Secretary-General Francesco Frangialli would move on after 11 years at the helm (and 19 years with the UNWTO), it appeared that Dr Taleb would almost seamlessly take over.

When the Koreans decided to enter the fray, the heat was on. Since September 2008, Dr Oh’s campaign was heavily backed by the Korean government, financially, politically and diplomatically.

Drawing upon their experience in making Mr. Ban Ki-Moon secretary-general of the entire UN system, the Koreans went all out with a well-funded, well-oiled lobbying and diplomatic effort at every level of government of the UNWTO executive council members.

One of the strategies was to paint Dr Rifai as being part of the establishment, and hence part of the problem. Dr Roh’s election platform said, “The UNWTO must avoid becoming a self-serving organization concerned primarily with self-preservation.”

Asked to comment, Dr Rifai responded, “I only joined the UNWTO in 2006 and inherited a system that had been in place for years.” He made it clear in his election platform that boosting governance would be a key aspect of his post-election agenda.

Dr. Rifai holds a PhD in Urban Design and Regional Planning from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia in 1983, a Master’s degree in Engineering and Architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago in 1979, and a BSc in Architectural Engineering from the University of Cairo in Egypt in 1973.

Between 1973 to 1993, he taught and practised architecture and urban design in Jordan and the United States. From 1993 to 1997, he served as Director of Jordan’s Economic Mission to Washington DC and later Director General of the then newly established Jordanian Investment Promotion Corporation.

From 1999 to 2003, Dr Rifai served as Minister of Planning and International Cooperation, Minister of Information, and later Minister of Tourism and Antiquity.

Dr. Rifai established Jordan’s first Archaeological Park in the ancient city of Petra in collaboration with UNESCO and the World Bank, along with other projects in Jerash, the Dead Sea and Wadi Rum. He was also the Chairman of the Jordan Tourism Board, President of the Amman School for Tourism and Hospitality and was elected Chairman of the Executive Council of the UNWTO in 2001.

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