The forgotten history of France’s pioneering friendship with Jeddah

Sat, 2020-03-28 00:59

PARIS: In his book “The Discovery of Arabia by the French:
Anthology of Texts on Jeddah 1697-1939,” diplomat Louis Blin, a
former consul general of France in Jeddah, traces the history and
evolution of his nation’s long relationship with, and views on,
the city and the region.

He does this by presenting texts by about 50 French authors,
works that span more than two centuries, in which they give their
impressions of the region, and Jeddah in particular.
The quoted writers include literary giants such as Victor Hugo
(“Les Misérables,” “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame”),
Alexandre Dumas (“The Three Musketeers”) and Jules Verne
(“Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea”). Their writings about
the French connection with Jeddah and the region reveal much
interesting information that might come as a surprise to many Saudi
and French people.
A regular visitor to Saudi Arabia, Blin spoke to Arab News about
some of the things he learned while consul general, a posting that
coincided with the 175th anniversary of the establishment of the
French Consulate in Jeddah.
“The Jeddah Consulate was established in 1839 and was the first
French diplomatic post in the Arabian Peninsula,” he said.
“Marking that occasion triggered my interest in its history.
“I noticed that for 175 years, many diplomats had written and
published articles about their postings and then I realized that,
in fact, many other writers, journalists and travelers had done the
same because Jeddah had fascinated many French people.”
As he researched more of these works, his plans for presenting the
highlights he discovered quickly grew.
“At first, I thought about writing an article, which later became
an 800-page book because of the exceptional material that Jeddah
provided,” said Blin. “French orientalism is well known for its
interest in North Africa and the Levant but it is completely
unknown in the Arabian Peninsula.
“However, written texts about Jeddah were not limited to
diplomats, many of whom were prominent orientalists. Great French
authors such as Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Jules Verne,
(investigative journalism pioneer) Albert Londre, (novelist and
journalist) Joseph Kessel and (philosopher and writer) Paul Nizan
also wrote about the city.”
The works of these writers and many more provided him with a new
perspective on the development of the relationship between France
and Jeddah from 1839 on.
“The French wrote a great deal about Jeddah because it is where
the first French diplomatic post was established, during a period
of Franco-British rivalry in the Red Sea — though neither of
those two countries managed to set foot in what is now Saudi
Arabia,” said Blin. In those days, the British were in Aden and
the French in Djibouti but, in fact, they were able to de-escalate
their rivalry in the Red Sea.
“The first Frenchman who was interested in the region was
Bonaparte, and the first thing he did after besieging Cairo during
his conquest of Egypt was to send a letter to the sharif of Makkah.
He wanted the sharif as an ally in his conflict with the UK because
he was seeking to reach India, which required him to go via the Red
This marked the beginning of political relations between France and
the region, which soon began to grow and evolve.

Louis Blin

“Bonaparte’s successor in Egypt, Mohammed Ali, successfully
conquered the Hejaz, all the way up to Najd, 15 years after
Napoleon’s departure,” said Blin. “He did so with a
French-led army because he had the wise idea of recruiting
Napoleon’s defeated soldiers. This meant that he had doctors,
architects, and engineers in his army and all of them reached
“The Egyptian army that conquered Hejaz was mainly composed of
French officers. The first hospital in the Arabian Peninsula, just
like the first barracks and the first pharmacy, was built by a
“Even the French adjutant to Ahmad Bacha — Mohammed Ali’s
nephew, who was the incompetent commander of the Egyptian army —
ended up being the de facto governor of Jeddah for three years
before the British and Ottoman empires united to demand the
withdrawal of Egyptian troops from the Hejaz. Bacha failed to
conquer Asir and had to retreat to Makkah. His armed forces were
led by a Frenchman who became governor of Jeddah, which was
Mohammed Ali’s capital.”
While Egypt ruled Hejaz, from 1813 until 1840, the French
connection with Jeddah therefore continued.
“This is a story that is little known among French or Saudi
people, because many believe that Saudi Arabia was an Anglo-Saxon
preserve, but in both facts and in texts, the French had more
relations with Jeddah than others did,” said Blin.
“Jeddah is the gateway to Saudi Arabia, hence the title of my
book ‘The Discovery of Arabia by the French.’ It was through
the city that the French discovered the whole region. They did not
venture inside (the country), unlike the British who sent explorers
several times through Iraq or Syria. The French confined themselves
to the Red Sea and the coastline.”

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Source: FS – All-Travel destinations-News
The forgotten history of France’s pioneering friendship with Jeddah