RIYADH: EU Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Patrick Simonnet has bid the Kingdom farewell at the end of his mission, reflecting on the growth of Saudi-European relations over the past three years in an interview with Arab News.
“I leave with a certain sense of having contributed to the increasing relationships between Europe and the Kingdom,” he said.
The ambassador reflected on his three years living in Saudi Arabia, saying that his fondest memories were meeting people.
“I don’t want that to sound cliche, because I really think it’s people, you know, encounters, meetings, discovering people, discovering friends, colleagues,” he said.
“And I think that, probably, the intensity of the human experience is really something that I will take back with me.”
The ambassador arrived in the Kingdom in August 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. He was grateful that the “spirit of lockdown did not last very long.”
While working in the Kingdom and living with his family, Simonnet explored many of Saudi Arabia’s regions.
“Probably one of my fondest experiences is discovering so many provinces,” he said.
A day before sitting down with Arab News, Simonnet was in Tabuk.
“You wouldn’t believe me, but yesterday I was in Tabuk because I wanted to see this province, which is the closest to Europe,” he said.
“And it’s a very interesting part of the Kingdom.”
Though traveling was one of Simonnet’s fondest memories, the ambassador also highlighted the Kingdom’s “hospitality, the kindness of people, their shared interest for history, for cultural exchange.”
He discussed his efforts to strengthen the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the European countries, adding that ties have grown “tremendously well.”
Simonnet said: “I’m very proud of that. I think there’s not a European capital today that does not know what’s happening in the Kingdom in terms of transformation, socio-economic transformation.
“And that, I think, is due to the increased diplomatic exchanges we have seen over the last two or three years.”
The ambassador added that within the last three years, the Kingdom and European countries have witnessed multiple high-level visits and exchanges.
Strategic engagement between Saudi Arabia and the EU has also strengthened.
“I think this understanding — this level of political engagement, has been achieved, and it was not like that before,” he said.
“But then, beyond that, there are our trade and investment relations, which have progressed; our cooperation and coordination and dialogue on regional security issues,” he added.
The ambassador said that cultural cooperation, now flourishing, was previously absent from relations between the Kingdom and EU.
“People to people,” he added.
Looking into the future, the ambassador shed light on the areas of cooperation he hoped to see grow further between the Kingdom and the EU, with “trade first.”
He highlighted the long history of trade ties between Saudi Arabia and the EU, saying: “Trade remains a very important pillar of our relationship.
“It was very good to be able to count on the Kingdom during the energy crisis we started to have after the war in Ukraine, which changed a lot of things for Europe.
“And as you know, we put ourselves a bit in difficulty in terms of our energy supplies. And the Kingdom has kept on exporting oil to Europe and we are thankful for that,” Simonnet added.
He also shared his hopes that the Kingdom and the EU could develop further ties in renewable energy through the mutual objective of green growth.
“We have clearly an enormous interest in starting to trade renewable energy,” he said.
Regional security is another area where Simonnet has witnessed “tremendous progress.”
He said: “I think we have made tremendous progress on mutually understanding our positions on Iran and the JCPOA.
“We work together side by side to bring a political solution to Yemen. There’s a lot we also do to relaunch the Middle East peace process, to keep the two-state solution, which is so important, especially now,” he added.
The stability of the Horn of Africa and Sudan remains a key focus of the EU, with Saudi Arabia playing a key role in that regard.
“We have been very much supporting the efforts of the Kingdom to mediate between the factions. And as you know, the Horn of Africa is very important to us,” he said.
A political solution in Syria remains a common interest, Simonnet said, adding: “I think it’s important to realize that as Europe, we have so many common interests, mutual interests with the Kingdom.”
In the interview, the departing EU ambassador highlighted the five main areas of cooperation between the Kingdom and EU.
“We need to keep having a relationship which is strong in terms of diplomatic engagement, trade and investment, energy, regional security. And I would say cultural and people to people.”
Simonnet summed up his tenure as ambassador to the Kingdom as a “fantastic experience for me, as a family, and I was very happy to be able to discover so many places with my family.
“I made some very good Saudi friends. And I hope and I’m sure I will keep them for long because there’s something very valuable in your culture.
“I want to thank also my colleagues from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its leadership, because we have a very good working relationship and we have a shared interest in bringing our relationships even further.