Paris – I used to speak to my family in French when we were out and about in Jeddah, and every time it sparked their attention. The manager of a perfume store once grinned and said, “Oh, I’d so like to learn French,” with a twinkle in her eye.
Saudis are especially drawn to French culture and goods, to the point where they occasionally celebrate the French-speaking world with even greater fervour than nations that have been a member of the francophone community for a long time.
325 million people speak French as a second language worldwide. French is taught in classrooms to 93 million pupils, and 51 million people are studying it.
In spite of the fact that Saudi Arabia does not speak French, this appeal has recently been felt throughout the Kingdom. French is spoken by 150,000 people in the Kingdom, and 500 persons teach it.
French-speaking communities are growing from Riyadh to Jeddah and from Dammam to Khobar. Well-established French high schools in a number of the Kingdom’s cities have contributed to a boom that has been fueled by recent changes.
A suhoor meal was served on April 1 at the French Embassy in Riyadh to commemorate the founding of the French Saudi Youth Business Club. The club is meant to serve as a forum for interaction and mutually beneficial collaboration between young entrepreneurs from both sides. In order to achieve this, it will plan business-related events centred on a variety of issues, such as innovation, technology, sustainability, and next trends.
To create a link between the French-speaking and Arab communities, Arab Media debuted its French version on July 14 ,2020, which also happened to be French National Day. The undertaking is nevertheless a potent and enduring representation of the partnership between France and Saudi Arabia. Additionally, Riyadh organised a Festival de la Francophonie throughout the month of March to commemorate the Journee de la Francophonie on March 20.
More than 60 cultural, educational, sports, and gourmet events took place during the festival in the Kingdom in 2022.
The popularity of the French language in Saudi Arabia, according to Ludovic Pouille, the French ambassador there, is evidenced by “the increasing demand for enrolment in our Alliances Francaises, but also in our schools.”
Young Saudis voiced their desire to see the French language grow as early as 2021, on the occasion of the Journee de la Francophonie.
One student told Arab News, “Learning French has given me the opportunity to communicate with people from French-speaking nations and has improved my linguistic and professional abilities.” He expressed his desire for a “Saudi channel in French” to be available on television.
The focus of the Mois de la Francophonie 2023 was on artists and works that demonstrated a variety of worldviews. In Riyadh, Khobar, Jeddah, and AlUla, there were performances of music, movies, food, literature, and visual arts.
The cartoonist Joel Alessandra visited these four cities as one of the main events, and a poetry night put on in collaboration with Van Cleef and Arpels was full of wonder and magic.
In partnership with all the French-speaking nation’s embassies, additional regional events were staged in a number of places in March. Ten embassies took part in the Festival de la gastronomie des pays francophones in 2021.
The nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council are strengthening the long-standing bonds between France and the Arab world. In recent years, the UAE and Qatar in particular have placed increasing value on the French language.
For its part, the French government has been making efforts to support and encourage the teaching of French in the area. It has donated money to institutions and organisations that work to teach or advance French language and culture.
The GCC region presently has a large number of language schools that teach French. Additionally, there are an increasing number of private language schools offering courses for both adults and kids, making it simpler than ever to study French in the area.
For the nations that make up the International Organisation of La Francophonie, the French language is a crucial weapon for trade and diplomacy. The development of the language contributes to the strengthening of France’s strategic alliances and trade relationships with several of the energy-rich Gulf nations.
Consider Saudi Arabia. The long-term establishment of connections with France in a variety of industries has resulted in the establishment of a French-speaking culture there.
The historic agreement between France and Saudi Arabia to develop the cultural and heritage aspects of AlUla Governorate and to start joint scientific initiatives connected to archaeological research and excavations in the Kingdom provided the motivation for today’s activities in 2018.
It’s not just the biggest archaeological dig site in the world; it’s also the biggest cultural exchange between two nations.
According to the French Agency for the Development of AlUla’s director of archaeology and history, Ingrid Perisse-Valero, the agreement is “a model of economic, tourist, and cultural development which aims to enhance and preserve the cultural heritage of AlUla.”
During a trip to Paris in November 2021, Prince Badr bin Farhan, the Saudi minister of culture, signed a new set of accords fostering cultural exchange and cooperation in a number of fields, including cinema, literature, visual arts, performing arts, architecture, and design.
A month later, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was welcomed by French President Emmanuel Macron in Riyadh. A joint cooperation agreement for the peaceful use of space and a memorandum of understanding for the strengthening of cultural ties between Saudi Arabia and France were signed by the two parties.
Macron then greeted the crown prince at the Elysee Palace in July. According to Prince Turki Al-Faisal at the time, “thanks to the contacts that King Faisal initiated since 1919,” the visit was in accordance with very strong Saudi-French relations.
It is “a relationship that has been strengthened by frequent visits to France and by the reception of French heads of state in Saudi Arabia,” the official said.
The French equivalent, Rima Abdul-Malak, and the Saudi minister of culture met in Paris once more in March.
In this light, the signing of an agreement between the Royal Commission for AlUla and the Centre Pompidou, a national art and culture institution in Paris, added another brick to the building of cultural collaboration between France and Saudi Arabia.
The centre wants to increase its footprint in Saudi Arabia by opening a museum of modern art in AlUla.
This particularly fruitful cultural exchange between France and the Kingdom is currently gaining momentum and developing into a strategic alliance as a component of both the Saudi Vision 2030 and the “France 2030” plan, two programmes that have a lot in common.
French Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Pouille believes that “the energy transition can lead to the preservation of the environment, biodiversity, and the digital transition.”
This alliance has a strong emphasis on culture. The Gulf region’s standard-bearer for French-speaking culture and everything it stands for in terms of openness is undeniably Saudi Arabia.