RIYADH: In a recent wide-ranging interview with Arab News en Francais, Estelle Pagnon-Pouille, the French ambassador’s wife, spoke about bilateral relations between France and Saudi Arabia, the nation’s fast-transforming economy and society, and how she has developed a deep affinity to the Kingdom because of its people’s hospitality.
Pagnon-Pouille said she found the country “really fascinating.”
“It is a country with varying traditions. We don’t find the same traditional garments and architectures in different regions,” she noted.
“What impressed me the most were the landscapes,” said Pagnon-Pouille. “You have wonders like the hidden gem, AlUla, that I was lucky enough to visit three times. You can visit the mountainous regions of Tabuk, and I also must attend the Rose Festival in Taif. We recently visited Hofuf and its Yellow Lake, and then the magnificent Al-Hasa, which is one of the oldest and largest oases in the world.”
She urged French tourists to visit Saudi Arabia. “It is very important to change your outlook on this country, where significant societal changes are taking place. You must discover it to learn more about its cultural and historical heritage.”
She says AlUla is her favorite region. “It’s a somewhat mystical region because one has the impression that the mountains embody people who watch over this valley. And then, of course, we have all these projects coming out, with the archaeological discoveries that have been made by many Franco-Saudi teams since the mission of Laila Nehme in Hegra in 2002,” she said, referring to the French-Lebanese archeologist, known for her research on Nabatean writings, and excavations at Petra and Mada’in Saleh.
She added that the Lihyanite, Dadanite, and Nabataean peoples who lived in AlUla reveal that the Kingdom has always been a place of interaction and exchange between Asia, Africa, the Arab world, and the West.
Regarding her mission as the ambassador’s wife, Pagnon-Pouille shared some of her daily activities, saying: “I try to ensure that diplomatic relations run smoothly. I have the chance to meet a lot of Saudi men and women, and I greatly appreciate the gender mix that has been in place for a few years. It feels like things have always been this way.”
She also touched on the position of Saudi women in the labor market and reflected on the way “they have become role models to their compatriots such as Muneera Al-Dossary, director of investments at HSBC and president of the Capital Market Institution Commission, Her Highness Princess Reema Al-Ruwaysan, and Hoda Abdulrahman Alhelaissi, (a) fluent French-speaker (and) member of the Shoura Council.”
She said the Franco-Saudi friendship association, “Generation 2030,” was founded in 2019 by Saudi and French youth, initiated by Yousef Alhammadi, Timothee Dufour and Soha Alharbi, who are positive that young people have a lot to share and build together, far from the stubborn clichés that seemingly weigh on the citizens of the two nations.
Pagnon-Pouille explained to Arab News en Francais that cooperation occurs on all levels, including between young Saudi and French talent who are working with Mayada Badr. “(It) can be cultural, entrepreneurial and (in terms of) hospitality … like, for example, the collaboration between Saudi designer Shahd Alshehail and French designer Hanane Hotait.
“We also have the young Saudi Jameel Hareedi, who trained at ‘Cordon Bleu’ and came back here to open his own restaurant. It is extremely interesting to witness everything that can be accomplished by the Franco-Saudi cooperation,” she said.
Regarding the situation of women in Saudi Arabia, she said that women here have claimed their rights and are showing an intense motivation to succeed in entrepreneurship, finance, culture, art, and cinema.
Pagnon-Pouille offered the example of Noura bin Saidan, who created several artworks at Riyadh Boulevard with the help of her small team. “They are ready to engage in many challenges in all fields. On the economic level, I am thinking of Muneera Al-Dossary. Diplomatically, we have Princess Reema bint Bandar, ambassador to the United States, and Her Excellency Princess Haifa Al-Mogrin, an ambassador to UNESCO. So they are extremely active and are raising the voice of Saudi women.”
Pagnon-Pouille said she also had the chance to welcome three Saudi artists: Fatimah Al-Nemer, Taghrid Al-Bakchi and Najla Al-Salim, who exhibited around 40 of their creations.
She also pointed out that during the visit of Emmanuel Macron, the French president launched several projects “in all fields” in line with the Kingdom’s Vision 2030. This included new partnerships related to the digital economy, ecological transition, renewable energy, tourism, sport, culture, education, and health. “French companies are ready, more than ever, to bring their excellence, innovations, and skills to the Kingdom,” she said.
What she misses the most about France is Parisian theatre, although she had attended the “magnificent” musical on the life of Umm Kalthoum at Boulevard Riyadh City, as part of the Riyadh Season.
At the end of the interview, Pagnon-Pouille wished all Saudis and Muslims Ramadan Kareem and “a month of spirituality, exchange, and sharing.”