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21 February 2011

A rare battle for the UN presidency is gaining momentum between two Asian nations whose situations couldn’t be further apart.

Qatar, a flush and forthright desert dictatorship, and Nepal, a humble Himalayan republic, are the unlikely competitors. It is Asia’s turn to assume the rotating presidency of UN General Assembly, the 66th session of which begins in mid-September. Unusually, a consensus candidate has not been agreed months in advance and neither nation is budging.

Qatar’s gas wealth gives it an annual GDP per capita of €106,000 – top of the world rankings – while on average Nepalis each earn just €880 a year. Qatar has been playing up its diplomatic clout in recent years, acting as a peacemaker in Lebanon and Sudan. Nepal is undergoing post-monarchy wrangling that has left it without a constitution or lasting government since 2006.

Negotiations between the pair have failed to find a resolution. A meeting of the Asian Group is scheduled this Friday (25 February) for a final decision. If deadlock remains, the General Assembly will vote on the issue in September.

While the presidency is mostly symbolic, for such small nations the position holds significant international prestige. Motivation also comes domestically.

“Qatar is in the process of a major transformation thanks to its oil and natural gas resources, which goes in tandem with state and nation building,” Birol Baskan, an assistant professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar, said.

“Creating a Qatari identity transcending all tribal, sectarian, and other local identities is essential to the future stability of the country.”

Nepal also has unifying aims, Suhas Chakma, political analyst and director of Asian Centre for Human Rights, says. “It is very clear that the government of Nepal at the moment doesn’t have any credibility. If they get the presidency they think it improves their image. That is why they are so desperate.

“It sends a message at home. But at the end of the day it cuts no ice because on the ground there is no stability in government.”

Chequebook diplomacy has seemingly been avoided in negotiations, but lobbying for votes will be fierce. Geographic alliances are key. New Delhi and Japan are said to be siding with Nepal. However, China’s position is uncertain and a late public statement of support from Beijing could swing a poll. No such fight has happened since Iraq beat Singapore and Bangladesh in ballots in 1981.

For Nepal, with a history at the UN, a projection of national unity could mean much more at home than another step up the ladder of international prominence would mean for Qatar. However, the Gulf upstart has the confidence that its resources have already given it a disproportionate global role.


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