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Sheikh Mohamed underlines ties with France on first foreign trip

President Emmanuel Macron welcomes Sheikh Mohamed to a state dinner as French first lady Brigitte Macron looks on, at the Grand Trianon in Versailles Thomas Padilla/Pool via Reuters
President Emmanuel Macron welcomes Sheikh Mohamed to a state dinner as French first lady Brigitte Macron looks on, at the Grand Trianon in Versailles
  • The UAE’s new president spoke of the two nations’ deep cultural ties
  • Sheikh Mohamed joined Emmanuel Macron for a banquet at Versailles
  • The leaders signed an energy partnership, among other deals

The Louvre Abu Dhabi is perhaps the most visible symbol of the flourishing relationship between the UAE and France. The museum on Saadiyat Island, which opened in 2017 under an agreement between the two governments, is said to be France’s largest cultural project abroad.

Given this backdrop of cultural and commercial ties, France was a natural choice for Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s first official foreign visit since he assumed the leadership of the UAE.

On Monday night, during a banquet at Versailles hosted by President Emmanuel Macron, the UAE leader referred directly to the bond between the two countries.

“It is true that we have political and economic ties, but our cultural cooperation represents our utmost collaboration and this mirrors the quality of this strategic partnership,” he said.

On the back of the Louvre deal, tourism between the UAE and France has grown significantly. In 2021, the number of French visitors to the UAE increased by 59 percent, compared with 2020. The total number stood at 311,570, making France one of the top 10 source markets.

David Tarsh, managing director of tourism specialist Tarsh Consulting, told AGBI that the Louvre Abu Dhabi is “unquestionably one of the brightest jewels” in the UAE’s tourism crown. It is the centrepiece of Abu Dhabi’s investment in travel and tourism – which, before the pandemic, contributed AED188 billion to the economy.

The business relationship between the two countries dates back to the establishment of the UAE Federation, when French petroleum companies such as Total were engaged in oil exploration in the region. These ties were strengthened after the first visit of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan to France in 1976. Today, more than 600 French companies operate in the UAE.

On Monday, Macron and Sheikh Mohamed witnessed the signing of a Comprehensive Strategic Energy Partnership, which focuses on enhancing energy security, energy affordability and decarbonisation – as well as progressive climate action ahead of COP28, which is set to take place in the UAE next year. 

A number of agreements and memorandums of understanding were also sealed, covering sectors including space technology, energy and education.

Sheikh Mohamed described collaboration across all energy sectors as “critical”, adding that confronting climate change was important to both countries.

The UAE-France Business Council was also launched on the sidelines of the Versailles banquet. It comprises 18 CEOs from both countries who will meet at least once a year.

Total non-oil bilateral trade between the two countries reached more than AED25.2 billion ($6.7 billion) by the end of 2021, according to the Federal Competitiveness and Statistics Centre, and France is one of the main foreign investors in the UAE. 

Direct French investments in the UAE amounted to €2.5 billion ($2.54 billion) by the end of 2020, while the UAE ranks 35th in the list of foreign investors in France. Abu Dhabi-based sovereign wealth fund Mubadala committed to invest €1 billion to the LAC1 Fund, a €10 billion fund managed by BpiFrance during the same year. 

Sheikh Mohamed’s visit, which has been hailed by French politicians and analysts, aims to build on that partnership.

In comments published by state news agency WAM, Jean-Paul Mattei, head of the centrist group in the French parliament, said: “Our French-Emirati relations are distinguished and successful. We have a strong and solid partnership with our Emirati friends in all fields, including the economy, defence, culture, heritage protection and climate, but we consider culture the cornerstone of these distinguished relations.”

Sheikh Mohammed and Macron
Emmanuel Macron and Sheikh Mohamed toast during the Versailles banquet. Picture: Christophe Petit Tesson/Pool via Reuters

Raghu Mandagolathur, CEO of Marmore Mena Intelligence, told AGBI that the visit could “pave the way for both nations to cooperate in areas such as climate change, renewable energy and artificial intelligence”.

He added: “The UAE and France have long-standing strategic partnerships in the areas of trade, investments and diplomacy… The UAE President’s visit to France would help both nations increase their trade and economic relations, especially in terms of increasing non-oil trade and direct investments.”

The visit comes just a month after the UAE-France Strategic Dialogue held its 14th meeting in Abu Dhabi, with the two sides working on boosting cooperation in key areas including the economy, trade, investment, oil and gas, hydrogen, nuclear energy, climate change, education, culture, health, artificial intelligence, food security and fintech. A UAE-French energy event is also scheduled to take place in November. 

Yet it is still the cultural partnership that takes centre stage. The UAE has contributed €10 million to the restoration of the Château de Fontainebleau’s historic Imperial Theatre – the theatre will be renamed after the late Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan – while a French-language radio station was launched in 2018 in the Emirates. The UAE has also become an associate member of the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie.

France also hosted a pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai. After the six-month event, which ended in March, the pavilion is being rebuilt in Toulouse, where it will be used by the French Space Agency.