PARIS: Following her visit to Saudi Arabia on Feb. 1 and 2, Catherine Colonna, France’s minister for Europe and foreign affairs, talked to Arab News en Francais about the evolution of ties between both countries against a backdrop of regional and international tensions.
Q. What is your take on your visit to Saudi Arabia and your meetings with Saudi officials? What transpired from these meetings?
A. It was the first time I visited the Kingdom as minister for Europe and foreign affairs and it was an honor for me to be received by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. We held enriching discussions based on the remarkable relationship of trust between our two countries.
I also had a long meeting with Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman. We signed an energy cooperation agreement. I also spoke with my counterpart, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, as well as with Minister of State (for Foreign Affairs) Adel Al-Jubeir.
I had the opportunity to observe a great convergence of views with all the officials I talked to. There is a fundamental, clear, and mutual understanding whereby the regional troubles are largely intensifying under the impetus of none other than Iran, which is wrapped up in a dynamic of escalation in all kinds of fields: The nuclear field obviously, but also the proliferation of missiles toward non-state actors, not to mention the support for terrorism.
Iran is engaged in a broad campaign aimed at destabilizing its neighbors. We are also seeing the proliferation of drones, to the same non-state actors as well as to Russia where they are being used to carry out war crimes in Europe.
Faced with this growing threat, I strongly reiterated France’s support for Saudi Arabia, which we consider an ally and a regional stabilizing power.
France is resolutely committed to contributing to the security and stability of this part of the world. These are not mere words. During my trip, I visited the naval base of the French forces in the UAE, which houses several hundred French soldiers in Abu Dhabi, particularly within the framework of Operation European Maritime Awareness in the Strait of Hormuz. Our soldiers are mainly involved in the surveillance of maritime traffic. They had just seized a few days earlier tens of tons of weapons that were on their way to the Houthis in Yemen. This is one of many examples of our actions. When there are threats involved, we walk the walk, and we shall continue to do so.
In the context of our dialogue, we have also obviously tackled the Russian war of aggression on Ukraine and its harmful consequences on a global scale, not only in terms of security but also in terms of energy, economy, and food. We must work hand in hand to restore stability wherever the balance has been lost.
I also had the opportunity to meet the new secretary general of the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) with which we share the same regional security and prosperity objectives. The GCC is an important coordination and consultation body that proves that our friends in the Gulf are capable of uniting when the need arises. We shall intensify the dialogue between France and the GCC in the future.
Allow me to also highlight the extraordinary dynamism of our cultural cooperation with Saudi Arabia.
France has become Saudi Arabia’s main partner in this regard, as evidenced by the development of the extraordinary site of AlUla with the French Agency for Alula Development. Archeology is an old and well-known pillar of our cooperation, but it is not its only aspect. We are seeking to expand our partnership to include museums, research, fashion, design, and cinema.
I strongly reiterated France’s support for Saudi Arabia, which we consider an ally and a regional stabilizing power
Villa Hegra, a project that is progressing rapidly, is poised to become a major cultural center on a regional scale and is another example of this flourishing cooperation with a definite focus on the future.
We will actively broaden these exchanges in order to be able to swiftly establish a strategic partnership desired by our two countries with the aim of fitting all future projects into an ambitious framework.
Q. During a telephone conversation last June with your Saudi counterpart, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, you jointly expressed the wish to expand cooperation in the areas of regional security and stability. What measures or initiatives have been taken in this regard?
A. As I already mentioned, Saudi Arabia has a major role to play in promoting security and stability in the region, being the largest country in the Gulf.
We are working hand in hand to develop our bilateral cooperation in the political and security fields, particularly through enhanced consultation in order to respond to the crises affecting the world in general and the Middle East in particular.
To begin with, as I said, there is an escalation led by Iran, as it conducts destabilizing activities across the region. We are keen to face this together.
But there are several other points of tension that are increasing the risks of confrontation and instability in the region: The rise in violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories, the lingering power vacuum in Lebanon, the instability and volatility of the situation in Yemen in the absence of a permanent political solution, or even Syria, which remains a major point of instability and vigilance.
In this troubled context, my message was clear: France is loyal to its commitment to secure its Gulf partners. France is a historic and trusted partner. We have proven over the years that the Gulf can count on our support.
In order to alleviate tensions, dialogue is key. France is sparing no effort to promote dialogue. This was the main point of the Baghdad II Conference held last December within the framework of an unprecedented consultation format between regional states.
There is tremendous potential for cooperation between the countries of the region, and it must be materialized. Cooperation must be the name of the game in this troubled region, for the benefit of all, and above all, for the benefit of the peoples of the region.
We are working on a third conference under the Baghdad format, possibly this year. This was one of the topics of discussion with my hosts in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Q. The face of Saudi society has deeply changed since the launch of Vision 2030. What is your take on the gradual changes taking place in the Kingdom?
A. Saudi Arabia has been engaged for five years in a vast and ambitious program of reforms and modernization in the economic, societal, and cultural sectors within the framework of Vision 2030 led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. In this new perspective, France intends to play its full role and wishes to support the roll-out of this vision.
I must say that Vision 2030 is far from being a mere vision: I was struck by the profound changes taking place in Saudi Arabia. In only a few years, Riyadh has literally been transformed, as it is currently showing the world a face that is resolutely focused on the future and open to cooperation. We obviously support this change and are available to continue to support it.
Q. Saudi Arabia and France have a relationship that we can call “historic” and that dates back to 1926. How would you describe the current relationship between Paris and Riyadh?
A. Relations between our two countries are indeed solid and deeply rooted. The opening of a French consular post in Jeddah dates back to 1839. It was the first French diplomatic mission in the Arabian Peninsula.
France was subsequently the first state to recognize the sovereignty of King Abdulaziz in March 1926. It is based on this trust and this historical friendship that a dynamic relationship is thriving today and is more than ever focused on the future.
Franco-Saudi bilateral relations are booming. Following on from the crown prince’s visit to France on July 28, 2022, the two heads of state agreed to boost cooperation between Saudi Arabia and France in all kinds of fields.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and French President Emmanuel Macron met in Jeddah, in Paris, recently during the G20 summits in Bali, and on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bangkok. Similarly, to the visits of my government colleagues, Bruno Le Maire (French minister of economy and finance), at the end of January, and Olivier Becht (French foreign trade minister) in December 2022, my visit to Riyadh on Feb. 1 and 2 was fully in line with this framework.
We have made the commitment to meet again soon, and we shall continue to actively foster this excellent dynamic.