Vive l'entente cordial: UAE President Sheikh Mohamed embarks on Paris visit

Official visit underscores bond between UAE and France

President Sheikh Mohamed receives condolences from French President Emmanuel Macron in Abu Dhabi following the death of Sheikh Khalifa in May.
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Latest: UAE President Sheikh Mohamed arrives in Paris for state visit

Like a huge silver space ship, the gleaming dome of Louvre Abu Dhabi hovers over Saadiyat Island, protecting the thousands of treasures inside.

The museum, the first outside of France to carry the Louvre name, is also a permanent reminder of the cultural bond that links two countries.

Right across the water from the Louvre is another symbol of the close connection between France and the UAE: the Camp de la Paix or Peace Camp.

The French naval base is part of its presence in the Indian Ocean region and helps to protect the Strait of Hormuz, through which much of the world’s oil passes.

These partnerships visibly underline the importance of the relationship between the UAE and France as President Sheikh Mohamed prepares to meet President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace on Monday.

Deep ties between nations

It was another president of France, Jacque Chirac, who gave his blessing for the Louvre Abu Dhabi project in 2006 and the street where the museum is located was named in his honour. Mr Macron joined Sheikh Mohamed, then Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, for the opening of the museum more than a decade later.

And former French president Nikolas Sarkozy inaugurated the naval base in Mina Zayed in 2009.

But the bond is more than purely cultural or military: Mr Chirac was among the first world leaders to pay his respects at the grave of Sheikh Zayed in November 2004 and Mr Macron flew to Abu Dhabi to mourn the passing of Sheikh Khalifa this May.

Behind the diplomatic formalities is a deep understanding of what the two countries can offer each other. French exports to the UAE are worth about Dh12.5 billion or €3.4bn annually, the country’s second largest in the Arabian Gulf.

French fashion brands and luxury goods are highly popular among UAE residents.

In return, France imports about Dh3.7 billion (€1bn) of oil from the UAE each year.

In addition, a partnership between the educational systems of the two countries led to the opening of the Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi in 2006

There are also an estimated 10,000 French citizens and about 600 companies with a presence in the UAE.

A shared goal for global stability

In addition to the military partnership exemplified in the naval base, the UAE signed a Dh59bn (€16bn) deal with Paris for 80 upgraded Rafael fighter jets along with 12 combat helicopters built by Airbus.

The purchase underlined the two countries' common concerns in the region, such as the dangers of extremism.

Earlier this year, a bilateral defence pact between the UAE and France, signed in 1995, was activated, allowing French warplanes to carry out missions following a series of terrorist attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebels, including one that killed three workers at an Adnoc oil storage depot in Mussaffah in February.

While the relationship between the UAE and France has noticeably deepened in the past two decades, its roots can be traced much further back.

Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father, first visited Paris in 1951 as part of the Abu Dhabi delegation in an international arbitration to determine offshore oil drilling rights.

Nearly a quarter of a century later, in 1975, he returned again, as President of the UAE and guest of the French president at the time, Valery Giscard d’Estaing.

Mr Giscard would pay a return visit in 1980.

The two leaders enjoyed a warm relationship, as noted by Sheikh Mohamed when the former French leader died in 2020.

“He was instrumental in establishing the strong ties between UAE and France in partnership with the late Sheikh Zayed,” Sheikh Mohamed tweeted.

Sheikh Khalifa’s memory also lives on in France, where in 2019, a 19th century theatre at the royal palace at Fontainebleau was reopened — made possible through a Dh40 million (€11m) donation by Abu Dhabi — and was named in honour of the former president.

Updated: July 18, 2022, 1:07 PM