RIYADH: With direct investment amounting to more than €3.7 billion ($4.37 billion), France is one of the largest investors in Saudi Arabia. Projects relating to the Vision 2030 program to diversify the Saudi economy offer yet more opportunities for strengthening the bilateral partnership. France is keen to share its expertise in such fields as energy, water, transport, new technology, and aerospace.
For Saudi investors, France’s innovation ecosystem and location make it an ideal gateway for trade with the EU. Franck Riester, French minister delegate for foreign trade and economic attractiveness, touched on these issues and more during an exclusive interview with Arab News.
In particular, the minister said French companies are committed to increasing and diversifying their investments in the Saudi economy and have already identified significant opportunities, from renewable energy to healthcare to tourism.
Q. What are the key objectives of your current visit to Saudi Arabia?
A. France and Saudi Arabia have a long history of rich and fruitful cooperation, which we wish to further develop. I first visited the Kingdom in 2019 as minister of culture for the launch of the breathtaking AlUla project, highlighting the exceptional heritage of Saudi Arabia and the partnership with French cultural organizations.
I am here in Riyadh today to develop the economic relationship between France and Saudi Arabia, especially in the framework of the partnership agreed between President Emmanuel Macron and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during his official visit to France on April 18, 2018.
Our two countries share the same ambition in key sectors such as the ecological transition and technological revolution. This common ground provides for concrete business opportunities. Together with my counterpart, Khaled Al-Falih, with whom I have had the pleasure to exchange regularly, we aim to give shape to the economic component of this partnership by discussing shared investment opportunities in both countries.
My current visit is another step forward in our enduring and flourishing economic relationship, and I already hope to come back to the Kingdom to fully grasp its beauty and potential.
Q. France is one of the largest investors in Saudi Arabia, with direct investment amounting to more than €3.7 billion. Do you see room for growth as Saudi Arabia diversifies its economy under Vision 2030?
A. French companies are committed to increasing and diversifying their investment in the Saudi economy, in line with the priorities of the Vision 2030 especially in renewable energy, hydrogen, water and environment, healthcare, digital economy, smart cities, and of course tourism services and infrastructure.
French companies are renowned all over the world for their know-how and expertise, which make them ideally suited to meet the high expectations of the Vision 2030 program. That includes the tech sector: I am well aware that the French tech ecosystem is not always well identified in the Middle East. And yet, our striving tech scene is one of the most innovative and dynamic in Europe and in the world, now counting 10 “unicorns” and aiming for 25 by 2022.
Q. At a time when many governments are tightening their belts, Saudi Arabia has launched projects across sectors in recent months totaling trillions of dollars. Do you see big opportunities for French companies?
A. Saudi Arabia has made the right call: The time to invest and prepare for the post-COVID-19 world is now. France is on the same page. We have launched a €100 billion recovery and investment plan to support the long-term economic development of our companies, including the green and digital transitions.
I note that France and Saudi Arabia have made the same choices for the future: Our priorities are aligned. Hence, French companies will find huge investment opportunities in those sectors in the Saudi economy.
Q. Will French companies be investing in some of these projects, such as The Line in Neom, or do they primarily see themselves as bidders and executors of project contracts?
A. French companies have great ambition to be major partners in the giga-projects, among them, Neom, and more broadly the Red Sea Project, Amaala, Qiddiya, and AlUla projects. Unique in their scope, these projects act as a catalyst for French investments across many areas, covering new technology and innovative solutions, tourism and entertainment, arts, and culture. The unmatched track records of our industrial and technological flagships speak for themselves. Our companies offer a full array of expertise, from the early stages of any given project to its final implementation. They are used to partnering with foreign companies. I am therefore highly confident in their ability to meet the expectations of the Kingdom.
Q. The recently announced Saudi Green and Middle East Green initiatives call for cooperation to tackle the environmental challenges facing Saudi Arabia and the wider region. As a minister of a country that facilitated the landmark Paris Climate Agreement, what is your take?
A. We welcome and support the crown prince’s initiative. It is essential that Saudi Arabia becomes a regional and global beacon in the fight against climate change. The Green initiative sends a very positive signal in the perspective of the upcoming COP26. In recent years, France has been strongly committed to making globalization more sustainable. I believe that greening international trade is key to reach this goal, hence the need to put environmental considerations at the heart of the multilateral rules which organize trade. It is a priority we defend at the WTO with our European partners.
Q. According to the UN Development Program’s top energy expert, Saudi Arabia could be the leader of the energy revolution of tomorrow. Do you see any role for French expertise and knowhow in such a revolution?
A. Absolutely. The French-Saudi partnership in the energy sector is deep-rooted and mutual trust in terms of expertise and innovation is high. French companies and researchers are working hard to develop with their partners the energy technologies of tomorrow, which will enable us to put the energy transition at the core of the world economic recovery, of our industrial diversification and our common strategies for massive decarbonization of our energy mixes.
For example, French firms have already had great success in accompanying Saudi Arabia with ambitious plans to massively develop renewable energies. Many more concrete joint projects are to come in the field of decarbonized energies, as we are allocating massive means in France to green our economy.
Q. Not many countries have a minister delegate for foreign trade and economic attractiveness. What do you consider to be the highlights of France’s economic attractiveness?
A. Foreign trade and economic attractiveness are two sides of the same coin: It means we implement a pro-business agenda making our economy, and the companies based in our country, more competitive, innovative, and ready to take on the world. This strategy is already bearing tangible results: In 2019, France became the leading country in Europe for inbound foreign investment, for the first time ever — and stayed strong in 2020 despite the global shock on foreign direct investment (FDI).
Investors choose France because of its core assets: A central geographical situation within the EU, a highly qualified workforce, world-class infrastructure, available and cheap energy, and a strong internal market. France is the number one country in Europe for FDI in research and development and in the industrial sector. The €100 billion “France Relance” stimulus package will make it the first green economy and innovation ecosystem in Europe. We work hard to make Saudi companies willing to expand to Europe elect France as their HQ and production hub.
Q. French expertise has traditionally been in such sectors as energy, water, transport, innovation, new technology, and aerospace. Are we missing out anything that Saudi Arabia could benefit from?
A. I am convinced that French expertise in healthcare and the dynamism of the health-tech ecosystem could greatly contribute to the Kingdom’s ambitious goals regarding the health sector, and set the foundations for a sustainable relationship between our countries. I know our companies are willing to go in that direction.
France is also one of the world’s leading agrifood exporters. Our products are renowned for their high quality, in both taste and health, as well as for their traceability. Finally, regarding Saudi Arabia’s strong ambitions in terms of urban development, France would be keen to offer more of its proven expertise and best technologies to design, build, and manage smart and sustainable cities, while meeting high environmental and quality standards.