For decades, France has supported Jordan through its diplomatic mission and large-scale investments in the Kingdom. Venture met with four key figures who play an active role in solidifying and enriching this relationship; France’s Ambassador to Jordan, David Bertolotti; Executive Director of Operations and Director of the Jordan and Iraq offices of the French Development Agency (AFD), Laurence Breton-Moyet and Serge Snrech; and the Executive Director of CAFRAJ, Ibrahim Kattan.
By Hani Barghouthi
As a country, France is the single largest non-Arab investor in Jordan. According to Ambassador Bertolotti, politics, work ethic, and geography all factor into the appeal Jordan has for French companies and organizations. “I think that Jordan enjoys stability, which of course is always extremely important for investors, as well as the quality of infrastructure and skill-sets of Jordanians that can be found. Jordanians are known throughout the region for that,” he said. “Jordan is also very well connected to the rest of the region.”
Bertolotti has been France’s Ambassador to Jordan since last year, and his time as ambassador has so far been marked by a more substantial French presence in Jordan, as well as a solidification of pre-existing partnerships in various sectors. One of the most important of which is CAFRAJ.
Established in 1998 by a group of high profile business figures, including former Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour, CAFRAJ sets out to strengthen and expand relations between French and Jordanian companies. It does this by preparing comprehensive studies that break down what entry to the Jordanian market would mean for interested French companies, outlining the advantages of a potential move into Jordan. Most recently, CAFRAJ prepared a study for Saint-Gobain, a multinational French construction materials company, managing to convince it to relocate their regional offices to Amman. Today, CAFRAJ has 340 members, 35 of which are French companies.
While CAFRAJ operates in the commercial and industrial sectors on a broad scale, AFD specializes in development, be it in infrastructure, environment, or economy. AFD, an operator of the French government’s development policy, recently celebrated its tenth year in Jordan, and preceded the celebration by signing a new MoU with the Jordanian government during French President Francois Hollande’s most recent visit to Jordan, in which AFD pledged 900 million Euros of aid to the Kingdom until 2018. Much of AFD’s presence in Jordan has been dedicated to improving access to water. It has also financed a quarter of total renewable energy efforts in the country, and has been substantially involved in sectors such as transportation.
In terms of Jordanian sectors of interest to French companies and organizations, telecommunications, energy, and transportation are dominant at the moment, which aligns with Snrech’s statement placing great importance on AFD’s focus on “large infrastructure, water, sanitation, renewable energy”, areas in which he considers there are otherwise “very few players” as a result of predominantly humanitarian aid afforded to Jordan.
On Kattan’s side of operation – that is, commercial and industrial – things get significantly more diverse, with French members of sectors as far reaching as fashion coming into play as well.
While Bertolotti values the importance of preserving and helping pre-existing investments thrive and grow, it is his “ambition and wish” to facilitate French penetration of more sectors in his time as Ambassador, seeing great promise in sectors such as fintech, gaming, and e-health. He would especially like to see an alliance between Jordan and France in the medical sector, and has already begun taking steps in the direction of making that a reality. Last month, he brought together representatives of Jordan’s health sector, both private hospitals and specialists in medical equipment, and presented to them the opportunities for medical specialization in France for their young doctors. He wishes to carry this out within the framework of the Arab Health Congress in Dubai, but also maybe through holding B2B meetings in Paris “very soon.”
This also plugs into a newly-directed more general focus on vocational training from both the Jordanian government and the French embassy, who will be working together to secure an agreement with the Association for the Professional Training of Adults, as well as being in close discussions with the newly-formed Crown Prince’s Technical University, which will start providing vocational training next year at the university level.
Such investments in Jordanian business and labour are having an important impact on the country’s economy that can be clearly seen in employment, innovation, and rejuvenation. According to Kattan, if taking both direct and indirect employment into account, French companies employ a total of about 10,000 Jordanians. Citing oil and gas company Total as an example, Kattan says, “They have their full-time employees in stations and so on, but they also create about 3000 indirect jobs in the form of drivers, subcontractors, and so on.”
Bertolotti also mentioned Total, along with Orange and Carrefour, saying that his impression is that each of these companies has brought a “new level of professionalism” to their respective fields and “completely changed” the consumer experience to the better. He went on to mention the work done in infrastructure, stipulating that it has helped “a great deal”, specifically referencing the water sector.
The water sector in Jordan is AFD’s current point of focus, but Snrech thinks the next main objectives to develop are in energy, stressing on the importance of “storage needing to become the next frontier for renewable energy in Jordan”, as initiatives like the Green Corridor will facilitate additional renewable energy, but technical limitations will create the need to focus on storage. The other frontier, according to Breton-Moyet, will be to “foster energy efficiency, for which we already have the grounds prepared.”
This Franco-Jordanian business relationship, however, is not without its challenges. Like most telecoms in Jordan, Orange had a long-running disagreement with government agencies and regulators regarding energy prices and taxation, and Lafarge, one of the country’s biggest producers of cement and concrete, suffered in the aftermath of market liberalisation and environmental controls. However, both the Ambassador and Kattan appear to view these issues as resolved after the recent agreement reached between Orange and the government and the new project Lafarge is planning in Fuheis.
The more serious challenges are considered to be the ones faced by Jordan as a country, specifically circling back to the turbulent political atmosphere in the region and the resulting strain of the Syrian refugee crisis. Despite, according to Breton-Moyet, Jordan having a “very strong political vision and methodology in facing this crisis”, and being particularly efficient in utilizing aid, Jordan nevertheless has a difficult equation; as a middle-income country, people have expectations of higher education and good services, so on the one hand there needs to be investment in cutting edge technologies in order to maintain a status quo of achievement and development, but on the other hand there are 1 million refugees which is a humanitarian crisis, so it is significant pressure on the country.
Still, Bertolotti believes that the regional situation hasn’t had a negative effect on the two countries’ economic relations. “It has brought us two countries even closer, because we work together as friends and allies to end those conflicts and bring more stability to the region once again,” he said. As for how he thinks it will affect French investment and interest in Jordan, he is not too worried; “For them it is very important. Perhaps it is a different sector of activity than the one that existed in the first 10 years of the 2000s – with more infrastructural focus and a less commercial one – but it shows clearly that French companies are still there, and still interested.”
This is part one of a nine-piece story. Other pieces include: