Saudi Arabia is not bluffing and is strongly committed to taking the headquarters of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) from Madrid. The Spanish government had deployed its diplomatic weapons to prevent Riyadh from presenting its official candidacy to take over the headquarters of the UN body. But it has had little success. The Arab country has already confirmed to the Executive its intention to take it away, sources from the Administration assure this newspaper. The formal proposal will be presented in the coming weeks, according to sources close to the UNWTO. This is a mandatory preliminary step for it to be included in the agenda of the next general assembly, to be held in Marrakesh (Morocco). The decision will thus remain in the hands of the member countries.
Saudi Arabia’s interest in taking over the headquarters was initially a surprise for the Executive, as announced by EL PAÍS on August 6. Although the passing of the days has turned surprise into concern. Ministerial sources acknowledge that it is almost unstoppable for the matter to reach the UNWTO assembly. And that vote seems difficult to control. Spain understands the Riyadh maneuver as a hostile movement and has made it known to them. “We have conveyed to the Saudi Arabian embassy that it is an unfriendly gesture and we do not understand this fickleness,” acknowledge sources from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who have also called Zurab Pololikashvili, secretary general of the organization, to consult.
The Government of Pedro Sánchez uses in his favor that there are no precedents for a change of headquarters in the UN institutions. “It is the only one in Spain. In addition, it would alter the regional balances of the central bases of the United Nations organizations and would open a dangerous gap “, explain government sources, who add:” There are no reasons for this transfer, beyond the interest of Saudi Arabia. ” For the Asian country, for its part, it would be a boost to its strategy of opening up to the world with a clear commitment to the travel industry. The organization, which has 152 employees in Madrid, has the function of promoting responsible, sustainable and accessible tourism, an engine of economic growth, and offers support to the sector to promote tourism policies.
With the transfer proposal on the agenda – once there is a formal request it will have to be included -, the ball will go to the roof of the 159 countries represented in the assembly, which are the ones that will decide with their vote if there is a move (or no). Saudi Arabia needs two-thirds to wrest the UNWTO headquarters from Madrid. That is, to convince at least 106 countries. The appointment, which takes place every two years, is set for the middle of October, although everything indicates that it will be postponed to the end of the year at the request of Morocco given the delicate health situation due to the pandemic.
The organization, in profile
The UNWTO Secretary General, Georgian Zurab Pololikashvili, is still in profile for the moment. At least for the public. “We know that Saudi Arabia is in the campaign, but there is nothing official. We are happy in Spain, although we owe ourselves to what the member countries decide ”, sources from the organization explained a few weeks ago. A position that is maintained for the moment, something that bothers in the Spanish tourism sector. “If you vote and the headquarters remain in Spain, Pololikashvili will be very touched,” acknowledge government sources.
The country’s big companies go further and accuse the Secretary General of being part of Riyadh’s strategy: “The battle for votes is already being fought. In these negotiations, Pololikashvili plays a very important role and seems to be on the side of Saudi Arabia ”, agree several senior managers of tourism firms. These same sources assure the danger that the matter supposes reaching the assembly, since the Middle Eastern country will put all the meat on the grill. “The objective of the Government should not be to win in the vote, but not to enter the order of the day. If you vote, you are lost because they will try to convince the countries with whatever is necessary, “they warn. Administration sources agree in part of this reading and fear a possible sale of votes in which Riyadh plays with an advantage.
However, foreign sources trust in the diplomatic strength of Spain: “There are contacts at the highest level to convince the rest of the countries. We don’t want it to get to the vote, but we are working on that scenario. Minister José Manuel Albares himself has been personally involved ”. Sources from La Moncloa assure that President Pedro Sánchez is aware of the situation and that he will also move if necessary to avoid the loss. In a few months it will be known whether world tourism has its home in Madrid or in Riyadh.