By Arab News
By Faisal J. Abbas*
Friday marks the end of a remarkable two weeks in the context of Saudi-French relations. Ties between the two nations have been reignited and rejuvenated and are now well on the way to reaching their full potential.
Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel Al-Jubeir aptly described what happened as a “quantum leap” in Saudi-French relations. During an interview with Arab News en Français in Paris, he said the leap was being fueled by two “young leaders who have visions and ambitions and the courage to move their countries to a better level,” in reference to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and French President Emmanuel Macron. “This is the coming together of many different elements,” added Al-Jubeir.
This quantum leap could be seen through the high-level participation at Vision Golfe 2023 — organized by the French Ministry for the Economy, Finance and Industrial and Digital Sovereignty — and the two countries’ political alignment on several regional and international files. They signed 24 memorandums of understanding at the France-Saudi Investment Forum.
There was a fantastic presentation at this week’s Expo 2030 reception, in which Saudi ministers and architects, including Khalid Al-Falih and Princess Reema bint Bandar, made a fitting case for why Saudi Arabia should be allowed to host Expo 2030 in Riyadh. Pride was the overwhelming emotion when the Saudis explained in great detail the fabulous changes that are taking place in the Kingdom and how the world should come to Saudi Arabia.
At the Paris Air Show, Saudi-French relations really did take to the skies. Saudi Arabia’s budget airline flynas was a major player, ordering 30 aircraft worth $3.73 billion from aerospace manufacturer Airbus. Airbus also signed an investment agreement worth more than 25 billion riyals ($6.7 billion) to build military and civilian helicopters in Saudi Arabia with a local defense company.
Finally, the crown prince himself led the Saudi delegation at the Summit for a New Global Financing Pact.
It was indeed a remarkable fortnight.
But what exactly does this quantum leap in Saudi-French relations entail and how did it come about? First, we need to understand that it was not a sudden success or a surprise. This is instead a multifaceted relationship that has been in the works for years.
Culturally, as described in a column for this newspaper by Saudi Culture Minister Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan, we are celebrating “five golden years of Saudi-French cultural cooperation.” He wrote: “Over the past five years there have been qualitative transfers in our cultural cooperation, thanks to the Saudi and French leaders’ shared commitment and recognition of the importance of this cooperation to continue strengthening our bilateral partnership. Saudi Vision 2030 has opened vast opportunities and we are working with partners globally to leverage these opportunities.”
Like Saudi Arabia, France is as concerned with mutually beneficial opportunities in the future as it is about history and culture. In fact, at Vision Golfe 2023, Saudi Industry and Mineral Resources Minister Bandar Alkhorayef outlined 12 sectors in which French companies are welcome and can contribute.
It was thus no surprise that, at the Saudi-French Investment Forum that was also held this week, the French minister of foreign trade described Saudi Arabia as France’s leading trade partner in the region.
Politically, there is a clear alignment on many regional and international issues. Two examples are the need for a peaceful solution in Ukraine and the need for stability in the Middle East, where Riyadh and Paris perhaps see eye to eye on almost every topic. Lebanon is the only possible exception, since Riyadh has signaled many times that it must solve its own problems and the Kingdom has steered away from backing a particular candidate for the vacant presidential seat.
Apart from that, it seems like the sky is clear. Who knows what this partnership can go on to achieve, with all the changes, reforms and opportunities emerging in the new Saudi Arabia?
In another three years, Saudi Arabia and France will be celebrating 100 years of diplomatic relations. As Saudi Investment Minister Al-Falih said: “Many of Saudi Arabia’s achievements in Vision 2030 will have the fingerprints of Saudi-French partnerships.”
Throughout the past two weeks, the French got a taste of what it means to work and partner with Saudi Arabia. And thanks to the spectacular show put on at the Grand Palais Ephemere for the Expo 2030 reception, and the presence of Saudi astronauts Ali Alqarni and Rayanah Barnawi, who just returned from Earth orbit, it seems that at least when it comes to the Saudi-French relationship, the sky is literally the limit.
- Faisal J. Abbas is the editor in chief of Arab News. Twitter: @FaisalJAbbas