Muscat – Since the establishment of diplomatic relations between Oman and France, the two countries have had fruitful cooperation in political, diplomatic, economic and cultural spheres. Omani-French relations have been characterised by positivity and mutual respect.
To mark 50th anniversary of France’s diplomatic presence in Oman, Muscat Daily spoke with H E Veronique Aulagnon, Ambassador of France to Oman, ahead of Bastille Day, the national day of France celebrated on July 14, who said the relations go back many centuries.
“French traders were already visiting Oman in the 18th century. We signed our first bilateral agreement in 1807. We had a consul in Muscat at the end of the 19th century. His residence was turned into a French-Omani museum by the late Sultan Qaboos bin Said – a rare gesture and a symbol of friendship between our countries,” H E Veronique said.
‘Strong legacy, but a legacy is not enough’
The relations, she added, are as strong as ever. “We have a strong legacy. But a legacy is not enough. Since His Majesty Sultan Haitham bin Tarik took office, we have been working to deepen our partnership. Our military and security cooperation is growing, in connection with Oman’s strategic location and French military’s important presence in the region and the Indian Ocean. We have at least one navy vessel visiting each month and holding regular joint training.”
On people-to-people contact, H E Veronique said that such contacts are the backbone of bilateral ties between countries. “The pandemic has badly affected people-to-people contact all over the world. However, tourism on both sides is rapidly picking up.”
In 2019, almost 70,000 French tourists visited Oman, which places France among the top European visiting nations. “We are also attracting more and more Omani students, through successful scholarship programmes, notably for doctors. We are working with the Ministry of Education to scale up the teaching of French in Omani public schools,” she added.
‘We do speak English’
H E Veronique informed that France is a growing tourism destination for Omanis. “Paris, Disneyland and Côte d’Azur (the French Riviera) are the most attractive spots. Their main interests are entertainment, culture, shopping, gastronomy and coastal tourism. I strongly encourage everyone to visit France, the number one destination in the world. And yes, we do speak English!” she declared.
On plans to make travel to France easier, H E Veronique said Omanis already benefit from an easier and more generous visa issuing process in comparison with other nationalities. “The processing time for their application is shorter – few days. First time applicants may receive a two-year visa provided that they meet the requirements. The validity can be up to five years on a renewal,” she said.
In addition, the EU recently started preliminary discussions on a mutual visa waiver with Omani authorities. “France is very supportive. We put it on the agenda during our Presidency of the European Union, which just came to an end. I am hopeful that a decision on the launching of negotiations can be reached in the coming months. In any case, the process would take some time.”
On what Oman can do to attract more visitors from France, H E Veronique said the sultanate has a very effective marketing campaign in France resulting in a surge of French tourists. “Direct flights operated by Oman Air and now Air France are essential,” she said.
“However, having discussed the matter at length with tourism agencies, I believe that there are three things that Oman could do to attract more visitors from France. First, provide more middle range accommodations – Oman is an expensive destination. Secondly, improve the offer; better services along the well identified tourism routes – good restaurants, modern gas stations and high profile cultural festivals. Thirdly, revisit the matter of super taxes on certain goods and the closure of many restaurants during Ramadan. I am aware that this is a sensitive issue, but it is my responsibility to flag its negative impact on tourism from France.”
‘Imports from Oman multiplied seven times last year’
Trade between Oman and France has grown over the last ten years. It has amounted to between €250mn and €600mn a year. It reached over €300mn in 2021, which was a ten per cent increase compared to 2020, after a sharp drop in 2020 because of the pandemic.
“The new element here is that imports from Oman to France multiplied by seven last year. France imports mostly oil refined products from Oman, while France mostly exports aircrafts, military equipment, machines, medicines, cosmetics and luxury goods.”
H E Veronique said her country is encouraging French companies to increase their footprint in Oman. “They already have major market shares in sectors such as energy production, water desalination, waste management, military and security equipment, and sophisticated infrastructures.”
But they are also investing in new areas such as fisheries – the French Port of Lorient is part of a consortium to build and operate the fishery port of Duqm, renewable energy and possibly also green hydrogen. “There is also strong interest for tourism, agribusiness and health,” she added.
On how Oman is collaborating with France in renewable energy, H E Veronique said, “Oman has a target of deriving 30 per cent electricity from renewable sources by 2030, against less than one per cent in 2018. To achieve this goal, the authorities need to aggressively bring new solar and wind power plants to the grid. In addition, Oman has a strong potential to produce green hydrogen, with significant benefits in the medium to long term for Oman’s carbon footprint and its economy,” she said.
“French companies already have a strong footprint in the energy sector in Oman, and they are ideally positioned to invest in renewable energy. Two of them were prequalified to build and operate the new Manah I and II solar plants, and I hope that they will soon receive good news.”
H E Veronique informed that French companies are also investing outside the scheme of government backed power purchase agreements because they need to meet more and more stringent corporate decarbonation targets.
“Since the Paris Climate Conference, it has become more and more difficult for an internationally listed company to continue with business as usual. And rightly so. In Oman, Veolia, partnering with TotalEnergies, will soon be operating the first desalination plant in the country powered by solar energy, and this is only a first step,” she said.
“Total Energies is also positioning itself as a player in the ‘solar energy for business’ market. Last but not least, our companies are looking at opportunities in the green hydrogen sector, in Oman and in the region.”
‘No 1 destination for foreign investors in Europe’
On investment opportunities for Omanis in France, H E Veronique said, “France is the number one destination for foreign investors in Europe. Most attractive sectors for investment are commerce and distribution, digital services, advisory and services to companies, health, and the car industry.
Investments to France from the Gulf region are booming, with a strong interest for hospitality and luxury, and also financial services and new technologies.
“In Oman, French investment is stable, and it is closely related to the presence of over 40 French companies. Now that the Omani economy is recovering and decisions by the government on tenders are expected soon, we foresee French investment to grow in the coming years. However, in a competitive regional environment, further action to improve the business environment would make a big difference.”
Speaking about Oman’s peace-building efforts, H E Veronique said, “Thanks to its good relationships with all its neighbours and partners, Oman has the diplomatic capital to engage successfully in peace making.
“It played a significant role to start the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. It has done a lot to support the first extension of the truce in Yemen and has definitely an important role to play to help the Special Envoy of the United Nations to obtain a new extension of the truce beyond August 2 and an agreement on the opening of the roads around Taez.”