Within the grounds of Chateau de Fontainebleau sits a skillfully designed mid-19th century auditorium. ”The Jewel Box” had lain idle for more than 150 years. The Imperial Theatre was restored to its original beauty in 2014 thanks to a generous donation from UAE President Sheikh Khalifa back in 2007. Once a place to embrace cultural exchange and entertainment, it has become a focal point of French-Emirati cultural co-operation. This past week, the Unesco World Heritage Site set the scene for President Emmanuel Macron’s meeting with Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. And, as the curtain fell on the leadership visit at the Royal Court venue, the future of cultural co-operation, yet again, took centre stage.
Both leaders recognise that UAE-France relations are entering a new phase. Our strategic partnership is as strong and dynamic as ever, and culture is at the heart of it. It has provided ways to foster mutual understanding and build longstanding bridges between people, civilisations and religions. In the Middle East, cultural exchanges have had a fundamental role in inspiring future generations and promoting peace and tolerance. France – “le pays des Lumieres” or “the country of enlightenment” – has become our natural partner in this endeavour.
Our cultural co-operation has already resulted in successful ventures that have benefited thousands of people in the UAE, Middle East, France and beyond. The UAE is home to regional hubs such as Paris-Sorbonne University, Insead and Esmod. In La Sorbonne, young French, Emirati and people from the wider region study sciences and humanities side by side, creating bonds that will last for decades to come. With La Sorbonne, we have brought the world-class standards of French education to the Middle East, but most importantly we have embraced new perspectives and ways to understand our world.
It is also through the French language that France shines in the UAE and throughout the region, and with it the values of openness and tolerance to that our two countries have become so accustomed to. More than 60,000 schoolchildren are currently learning French in UAE public and private schools. The UAE is also a member of the International Organisation of the Francophonie – an international organisation representing countries and regions where French is a lingua franca or customary language – and as such contributes to the promotion of French language in the region. France and the UAE have also taken initiatives to strengthen the teaching of Arabic in France, as illustrated by the recent agreement between Institut du Monde Arabe and the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre to co-operate on an Arabic language certificate.
But perhaps there is no greater symbol of Emirati-French co-operation than that of the Louvre, Abu Dhabi. The universal museum, the first of its kind in the Arab world, has dovetailed seamlessly into the Emirates’ diverse art and culture scene. It sits in the heart of Abu Dhabi’s cultural district and has quickly adopted a reputation as a space for cultural exchange, community engagement and progressive dialogue. Intersecting Asia, Europe and the Middle East, and at the crossroads of civilisations, this architectural masterpiece hosts exceptional works from around the world, and in particular from French museums. Starting in October, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, in collaboration with the Guimet Museum, will host The Dragon and the Phoenix, an exhibition shedding light on the cultural dialogue between China and the Islamic world from the eighth to the 18th century. Today, the Louvre Abu Dhabi has become a symbol of openness and progress in the region, a place that forges links between people from the West and the East, a space for sharing protecting us from all forms of isolationism.
The Franco-Emirati cultural co-operation is rich and dynamic, but above all it carries a common vision, the belief that culture is one of the most powerful ways to build a more open, united, tolerant and peaceful world.
French culture has provided inspiration for the UAE. Nationwide development and growth of art and literature festivals, auction houses, galleries and institutions are bringing worldwide attention to the UAE’s art and culture scene. The Abrahamic House, a beacon within the Saadiyat Cultural District, will capture the values of mutual understanding, harmonious coexistence, and peace amongst interconnected faiths. Last month, the Golden Lion Award at the 17th La Biennale Architettura in Venice was yet another endorsement on the international stage of the UAE’s contemporary art practices.
When French and Emirati leaders concluded their meeting last week, it set the tempo for the next phase of our strategic alliance. Whether a beautifully renovated theatre, the promotion of French language, or university partnerships – cultural connections are not at the fringe of our increasingly close ties. They are at its very heart. UAE-France cultural links are a powerful expression of mutual understanding, shared values and common purpose in a turbulent region and world.