His Excellency Saad S Khan is a career civil servant and diplomat with 29 years of professional experience in the Government of Pakistan. He has a PhD and post doctorate in International Relations and diplomacy. He is a widely published historian, being the author of eight (08) acclaimed books, as well as an internationally renowned political scientist. Dr Khan has a great interest in military music, being the first Asian and the first Muslim, ever to become the International Chairman of the International Military Music Society (IMMS) and having produced an Award winning documentary film on military bands as well. Dr Khan has an impressive professional profile, having been Deputy Secretary-General for National Commission for UNESCO, a stint as Project Head of UN-Habitat after the 2005 Earthquake, and as a former Assistant Governor of the Rotary International. He has won many awards and honors and has travelled extensively worldwide.
What are the goals and vision of the ECO Cultural Institute in Iran?
The ECO Cultural Institute is the cultural arm and sister agency of the Economic Cooperation Organization. Both the institutions were established during the height of the cold war as the Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD) created in 1964 (but started functioning in 1965), and the RCD Cultural Institute (RCI) established the following year, both with Iran, Pakistan, and Turkiye being the founding member states. Today, RCD is replaced by the Economic Cooperation Organization, with an impressive ten member states. The ECO region has one sixteenth (6.88%) of world population and one nineteenth (5.36%) of the world’s area.
The RCD Cultural Institute was revitalized in 1995 as the ECO Cultural Institute, commonly called the ECI, in accordance with the founding principles set in the Treaty of Izmir. The goals of the ECI include a cultural cohesion in the ECO region and a vision of greater people to people contacts and interactions amongst the peoples of its member states.
Having a cultural arm is not unique to ECO, even the United Nations has its specialized agency on culture which is called UNESCO. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Organization of Turkic States and many other regional organizations do have their cultural arms.
What have been the most significant achievements of the ECO Cultural Institute in Iran over the years of its operation?
The very existence of ECI for nearly sixty years (except a break of 12 years during 1983-95) is an achievement in itself. It is interesting to note that when, following the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the Iranian government withdrew from RCD, its Cultural Institute continued to function for another four years till 1983. Two years later, in 1985, the erstwhile RCD member states (Pakistan, Iran and Turkiye) decided to revitalize the ECO. Both the Treaty of Izmir and the Istanbul Declaration called for cultural cooperation among the nations that led to its revival under the new name of the ECO Cultural Institute.
Thus, it became the first of the three specialized agencies of the ECO to come into existence the other two on Education and Science respectively came into being within the last decade and are located, respectively, in Ankara and Islamabad. Being an older and bigger organization, the ECI has great potential to help in achieving the goals for which the ECO was set up. In other words, the cultural cooperation initiatives by ECI are a ladder towards the economic cooperation goals of ECO.
What are the most pressing challenges facing the ECO Cultural Institute in Iran?
The biggest challenge for the ECI is the challenge of ownership of this great institution by the members states. One may argue that the ideal of cultural cooperation cannot be subordinated to that of economic cooperation because the two layers of cooperation are mutually reinforcing and complementary. If there is easier travel between the ECI nations, greater people to people contact, accessibility to each others’ movies, television and radio programs, greater teaching opportunity of each others’ languages, availability of novels, stories and poetry of one ECO state in the languages spoken in other member states, all of this will enable economic linkages to flourish. Once that happens, greater proportion of ECO nations’ exports and imports towards regional states may be a natural sequel.
Lack of finances is the second biggest challenge as ECI arrears run into three times its notional annual budget. If the nation states pay their dues regularly, there will be enough financial cushion for the ECI to run most of its programs in the plan of action.
Another problem is that the membership of ECO does not automatically translate into the membership of the ECI. So as of now, only five of the ECO member states are regular members of ECI, another three are observer states, and the last two have still to apply.
What are the plans of the ECO Cultural Institute for the development of cultural cooperation among the ECO member states?
There are many plans and programs in the pipeline but each one of them depends on the willingness of the member states to participate and contribute in the expenses. The first major plan is to establish a forum for writers and poets of the ECO region. There may be a Writers’ Guild that may enable the literary persons to interact with each other and exchange ideas. As a first step, each ECO member state may like to accord visa free entry to the members of the guild, i.e. writers and poets, in their respective countries.
The ECO Youth Awards is another area were 18-30 years old persons, five from each country may be identified through a competitive process to be awarded the best youth of their country, one each in the field of scientific invention or innovation, sports, social service, fine arts, and literature. Thus eventually, we may have fifty youth identified each year to be so rewarded.
An annual Military Music festival is also in the works which may be rotated in the capitals of member countries in which the national bands or national orchestras of the members states may perform in an annual tattoo each year. Thus, we may have a regional equivalent of the Edinburgh Annual Military Bands Tattoo that takes place in the Scottish capital each year for the past half a century.
In what areas of culture does the ECO Cultural Institute have a special focus?
The ECO Cultural Institute has a special focus on Festivals of member states especially those festivals which are shared by more than one member state: the biggest example is that of the Yalda night and Nouroz which are celebrated not only in Iran, but also in Afghanistan, Azerbaijan and parts of Central Asia. The ECO Institute organizes celebrations with a view to introducing such events not only to other ECO member states where these events are not part of their regular culture but also to the outside world.
The ECO Cultural Institute has also organized events related to poetry of the region especially to honor the poetic giants of the region like Saadi, Hafiz, Ferdiousi, Ganjawi and Iqbal Lahori.
The ECO Cultural Institute is now planning to organize food festivals and dress festivals of the ECO region so people of one country are exposed to culinary and sartorial traditions of other countries of the region.
How does the ECO Cultural Institute support artists and authors from the ECO member states?
To promote the authors and artists of the region, the ECI organizes exhibitions of paintings, sculptures, calligraphies and other forms of arts at its premises. To promote the authors, the ECI has the honor of having published many books by emerging authors of the ECO region. Even now, it has some manuscripts under consideration but has resource constraints to get them published. Hopefully, as soon as the Institute gets its arrears cleared by the Member States, the ECI will be able to support the artists and authors in a more robust manner.
How does the ECO Cultural Institute help promote the culture and arts of the ECO member states?
In order to promote the culture and arts of the ECO Member states, the ECI has taken initiatives already mentioned above in respect of artists and authors. By supporting the artists we support the arts and by supporting the authors we support knowledge about the region, its history and its culture.
Through exhibitions, book talks, lectures, seminars, webinars, meetings, visits and other means at its disposal, the ECI continues to promote the culture and arts of the member states.
How does the ECO Cultural Institute help people from the ECO member states to get to know each other? What is the role of the ECO Cultural Institute in the expansion of cultural tourism in the ECO member states?
Probably this is the mandate of the ECO, rather than the ECI, to help ease visa regimes between and amongst member countries. The promotion of tourism is also an overlapping function between the ECO and the ECI.
There have been moves to initiate discussions on easing of visa regime in respect of the businessmen already at the ECO level. In due course, the Institute may recommend to the member countries on the possibility and desirability of easier movement for the writers, poets and artists of the countries especially when travelling for their artistic or literary pursuits. But as said earlier, even if the ECI Member States agree to discuss the idea, that discussion will have to take place at the level of ECO which has mandate for such activities.
The ECI believes that Cultural Tourism is an important component of any framework for cultural and economic cooperation. Easier visa regime for writers and artists might well be the first step in that direction. It is important that cultural troupes, music groups, and artisans are able to introduce their finesse and artistic skills to other countries in the region.
What is the plan of the ECO Cultural Institute to develop its relations with international organizations?
There are many international organizations working for cultural preservation—the biggest is the Paris-based UNESCO and then there is ISESCO, which is the cultural arm of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). It is indeed unfortunate that the ECO Cultural Institute does not have any formal relationship with these organizations for the past 60 years.
One of my first objectives is to establish formal relations with UNESCO and ISESCO so that they have an observer status in our organization, and we have an observer status at their events. Then there are several regional organizations such as the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Organization of Turkic States and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), all of which have their own Cultural Centers. Close coordination with all of them to introduce cultural
collaboration with their regions i.e. by introducing ECO region’s culture with them and introducing their culture to our region will also be my aim.
I am also very keen that Muslim majority regions in our immediate neighbourhood like Chechenya and Kazan in Russia, Xinjiang in Western China, Turkish Republic of Modern Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea, Nagorno-Karabakh recently liberated by Azerbaijan, and the state of Jammu & Kashmir, partly under Indian occupation are represented in ECI as non-voting member territories with the ECI. I cannot emphasize more that the preservation of their heritage which is closely related to the nearest ECO state’s culture falls within the scope of ECO Cultural Institute.
How does the ECO Cultural Institute help preserve and revive the cultural heritage of the ECO member states?
All the efforts mentioned in response to the earlier questions hint at the resolve of the ECI to preserve the cultural heritage of the ECO member states. The countries constituting the ECO region have rich tangible cultural heritage such as buildings and architecture, handicrafts and artworks, and masterpieces of literature and poetry but also the intangible cultural heritage such as social practices, oral folklore, performing arts and the like. For centuries, Isfahan and Nishapur, Constantinople and Bursa, Tashkent and Bukhara, Balkh and Baku, Dushanbe and Lahore, and so many other cities have been centers of civilization. This is a matter of pride for the nations of the ECO region and the ECI is endeavoring to preserve the very foundations of this great heritage.
How does the ECO Cultural Institute contribute to the creation of peace and stability in the region?
Art and music is one of the greatest contributors to peace and stability as well as a tool for greater understanding amongst the peoples. The ECI’s activities in promotion of arts and culture contribute directly to the peace that the region enjoys. It is a matter of record that since the end of the Second World War and the establishment of the United Nations, there has not been any full-fledged war between any two countries with each other amongst the ones which since 1995 onwards constitute the ECO, although in rare cases, wars were fought by an ECO member state with a non-ECO state.
I am not saying that this peace is all because of the ECO or the ECI, or their predecessors RCD and RCI. However, the underlying role of common cultural traditions and common heritage of these ten nations towards good neighborly relations cannot be under emphasized.
To give one example from my own home country, Pakistan, which was part of the South Asian subcontinent, we were ruled for centuries under various dynasties including those from Afghanistan, Persia, or the Turkic people mainly from the Central Asia. The Moguls dynasty that ruled for three centuries till its fall and replacement by British colonial administration also came from Ferghana valley, in present day, Uzbekistan. Some of the Mogul Queens were of Persian descent, like Empress Mumtaz Mahal, wife of Emperor Shah Jehan, who built the iconic Taj Mahal in her memory. Two of the prominent First Ladies of Pakistan, Begum Naheed Iskandar Mirza and Begum Nusrat Bhutto were also Iranian-born and only acquired Pakistani citizenship upon marriage to Pakistanis leaders, both of whom later rose to become Presidents of Pakistan. Thus, not only cultural bonds, but direct familial and marital bonds bind these countries with each other for centuries. This is what contributes to harmony.
How can the ECO Cultural Institute develop cooperation in the fields of history, demography, anthropology, archaeology, and the preservation of the region’s shared cultural and architectural heritage?
It is part of the mandate of ECI under its charter to promote collaboration between the national libraries, national museums and national archives of the member nations. Some Memoranda of Understanding already exists between museums and archives of member countries. Six meetings of the Heads of National Libraries of ECO members states have been held so far; the last one in Azerbaijan last year. This is a just one of the initiatives but I think the member states are gradually realizing that a lot more needs to be done in the field of history, museums, archeology etc. for the preservation of the region’s shared cultural and architectural heritage.
What measures have been taken so that the ECO region citizens can take advantage of the existing cultural capacities in these countries more than before?
I may leave the Presidency after the end of my tenure but I am looking at the future of ECO/ ECI region within 5, 10, and 20 years from today. It will be my endeavor to lay a foundation that ECO countries spend at least US$ 20 per citizen per year, through the ECI, for preservation and promotion of culture. As of 2024, the population of ECO region is 550 million, and this would among to $ 10 to 11 billion within 20 years. This is inline with UNESCO budget of $150 billion for the world population of 8 billion which again averages out to $20 per human being per year. Hence, that is a modest benchmark that we need to achieve.
The most important policy transformations that are required for the purpose would be free mobility within ECO region with no visa at all, or a quick visa on very easy terms, for visiting each other’s country; all museum tickets for ECO citizens in each country at the same rate as for the domestic citizens; and full efforts for promotion of each other’s languages in the whole region. In fact, all 25 major languages in the region are variants of three major languages, namely, Persian, Turkish and Urdu.
How can the ECO Cultural Institute develop cooperation between universities and other cultural institutions in the region?
The ECI Charter mandates it to have national branches in each of the member states. Due to financial constraints, it would be difficult to establish and fund branches in each member nation. However, it may be easier to negotiate and sign memoranda of understanding with national cultural institutions to agree to act as national coordination units for ECI in each member state.
It is a time taking process and needs the permission of the ECI Member States but can lay the foundation of lasting collaboration amongst the cultural centers of the member states. As for cooperation between universities, the ECO has recently established an education institute at Ankara, and that issue lies in their exclusive mandate and the ECI wishes them well as its sister agency.
How does the ECO Cultural Institute use the potential of new technologies such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality to preserve and revive the cultural heritage of the ECO member states?
At the moment, the ECI does not have the technical, financial and human resource capability to utilize artificial intelligence and virtual reality to preserve and revive the cultural heritage of the ECO region but that is a brilliant idea and the way to the future.
However, other technologies such as having a functional website, a regular newsletter, a Facebook page and a Twitter Handle are amongst the latest technologies being used by the ECI in promotion of culture of ECI member states.