Pourquoi ressembler à tout le monde (Why be like everyone else)? If you know French as a foreign language, you may escape this question. True, the 274 million-strong French speaking community is no match to the imposing 1.5 billion English speakers. But that’s the beauty, and the paradox. The day everyone speaks a particular language, its linguistic charm invariably fades.
It has been just two years since Oman and France celebrated the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations. And the cultural and economic relations between the two nations continue to blossom.
Journée internationale de la Francophonie (International Francophonie Day) is around the corner. March 20 is celebrated across the 77 member countries of the Organisation International de la francophonie (OIF), paying rich tributes to the French language and francophone culture. Francophonie, coined by the French writer Onésime Reclus, refers to the diverse geographic regions where French is understood and spoken, while francophone refers to a person who speaks French. March 20 is also the UN French Language Day.
In the Sultanate too, the Francophonie Day is celebrated with much fanfare.
The Centre Franco-Omanais (CFO), established in 1979 under a bilateral co-operation agreement between the two countries, has become a rendezvous for the younger generation of francophones to acquaint themselves with all that is French. The CFO, dedicated to promoting the French language and culture in Oman, functions under supervision of the Sultanate’s Ministry of Education and the French Embassy. Annually well over a thousand students — young and old — learn the French language at the CFO centres in Muscat and Sohar.
According to Christian Adam de Villiers, the director of CFO, the Francophonie Day is an occasion to showcase the contemporary French literary and cultural aspects to the public. “We hope to involve as many people as possible in the Omani-French cultural dialogue. The entire week from 19-23 March is observed as the Francophonie Week in Oman, complete with art exhibitions, movie screenings, concerts and conferences,” he says.
The Sultanate’s French connection can be traced back to the 1660s when maritime trade relations between the two countries strengthened and merchant ships from the Indies Company called at Muscat.
In the 1840s, Oman ruled over a vast marine empire that stretched from the coasts of Persia and Beluchistan to Zanzibar and Cape Delgago on the African coast. The then Sultan signed a Trade and Friendship Treaty with France in 1844 expanding bilateral trade, which was followed by the historic expedition of the Omani merchant ship La Caroline, marking a milestone in the marine trade between them.
French-Omani relations got a fillip after the opening of a French consular representation in Muscat in 1894. Sultan Sayyid Faisal bin Turki showed great affection for France, and in 1896 donated a palace in Muscat, now known as the “Maison de la France” (Bait Faransa), to the French Consul. In 1992, HM Sultan Qaboos bin Said and the late French President François Mitterrand established a museum in Bait Faransa. The museum has an amazing collection that highlights the intriguing shared history of the two countries.
Today the bilateral trade between the two countries exceeds €520 million. French exports to Oman stood at €464 million, while Omani exports to France reached €55million in 2015.
France is focusing on wooing more Omani investors to its booming small and medium enterprise (SME) and start-up sectors, encouraged by the significant growth in Omani investments in its tourism, hotels and real estate sectors.
With a view to boost French investments in Oman, the Public Authority for Investment Promotion and Export Development (Ithraa) held a three-day ‘Invest in Oman’ roadshow in Paris last year, focusing on sectors such as tourism, logistics, food and beverages and fisheries. The Sultanate is being promoted as the ideal investment destination for French companies looking to expand to the emerging markets of Gulf, Asia and Africa.
On the other hand, the Sultanate’s political stability, robust infrastructure, and its status as an emerging regional logistics hub are highly valued by the French business community.
French tourists increasingly find Oman as an attractive destination, thanks to the tourism workshops and road shows in France organised by Oman’s Ministry of Tourism. Last year alone, as many as 46,520 French tourists visited Oman, and the numbers are expected to rise this year. Oman Tourism France, which celebrated a decade of successful operations in 2012, has been instrumental in marketing Oman in France.
However, notwithstanding the booming bilateral trade and cultural relations, France is not among the top five countries in terms of the number of foreign tourists to the Sultanate.