U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Director-General Irina Bokova, a Bulgarian diplomat, bestowed the award during a three-day visit to the kingdom this week, the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported.
During her visit to Saudi Arabia, Bokova also met with Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal, who thanked UNESCO for becoming the first U.N. agency to admit “Palestine” as a full member.
Also present during the Bokova-Abdullah meeting, SPA said, were an “elite” group of UNESCO ambassadors, representing “Palestine,” Zimbabwe, Brazil, Poland, Germany and France.
The medal – “UNESCO’s highest honorary recognition award” – was a mark of appreciation for Abdullah’s initiatives in holding international forums and conferences furthering dialogue and peace, the agency said.
The king last year established a center in Vienna, Austria to promote interreligious dialogue, opened an interfaith conference in Madrid in 2008, and hosted a “culture of peace” gathering at the U.N. in New York later that same year.
In 2010, Saudi Arabia donated $5 million to UNESCO to implement a three-year international program, named for the Saudi king, aimed at building a “culture of peace and dialogue.”
The rector of the Islamic University in Medina, Mohammed Al-Uqla, praised UNESCO’s decision to award the medal to one of “the most influential world personalities.”
Saudi Ambassador to UNESCO Ziad al-Darees called it “international recognition of the continuous noble efforts he [Abdullah] was exerting for spreading the spirit of tolerance, co-existence and dialogue among rival individuals and societies.”
The award was, furthermore, “confirmation of the message of Islam which always calls for living in peace, dialogue and co-existence among all people of the world,” he added.
UNESCO's decision last fall to admit Palestine – made not by UNESCO officials but by an overwhelmingly majority of member-states in a vote – triggered a serious financial crisis for the agency, since U.S. law compelled the Obama administration to withdraw funding.
U.S. taxpayers accounted for 22 percent of UNESCO’s operating budget. Along with additional voluntary contributions, the agency received a total of some $80 million a year from the U.S.
The administration complied reluctantly with the defunding requirement, and is seeking a waiver that would enable it to resume contributions in the coming months. Bokova traveled to the U.S. late last year and again in March, seeking support from lawmakers and others for a restoration of U.S. funding for her agency.
Last week, UNESCO hosted a three-day event at its Paris headquarters called Saudi Cultural Days, featuring Saudi art, dishes, costumes and dances. It was opened by Bokova and Saudi Culture and Information Minister Abdul Aziz Khoja, who used the opportunity to commend UNESCO “for the courage it has shown by giving membership to Palestine.”
A seminar on cultural dialogue during the event was addressed by a former Saudi education minister, who discussed how “the West’s ignorance about Islam had a negative impact on Muslims,” according to a report in the Saudi newspaper Arab News.
U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice last month defended the administration’s desire to restore UNESCO funding, telling lawmakers the agency was “essentially an anti-extremist organization” involved in “essential work, from girls’ education to tsunami warning, that serve U.S. interests.”
“It’s not in our interests for these critical programs to go without 22 percent of U.S. funding,” Rice said.
The Reagan administration withdrew the U.S. from UNESCO in the 1980s, citing rampant mismanagement and accusing it of pursuing an anti-Western agenda. The Bush administration reversed the move in 2003, saying the agency had made important reforms over the previous four years.