Prime Minister Meloni’s visit to Abu Dhabi and the re-launch of the Italy-UAE strategic partnershipby Emily Tasinato
Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s visit to the UAE confirms a new beginning in Italy-UAE relations following five months of incremental engagement between the two governments
On 4 March, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni concluded a two-day mission to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), accompanied by Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani. The visit to Abu Dhabi represents the latest step in a gradual engagement between Italy and UAE. The renewal of a strategic partnership between the two countries has been among the top priorities of Meloni’s foreign policy, coinciding also with a more intense Italian diplomatic engagement in the Near East and Africa. Since the UAE clearly emerged in recent years as a leading player in the Arab world, Rome considers it to be an invaluable partner in supporting peace and prosperity across the Broader Mediterranean.
Since the beginning of its mandate, the Meloni government has worked hard to strengthen bilateral relations with the UAE. The last five months have, indeed, witnessed an unprecedented number of visits by Italian officials to the UAE. These included the Italian Chief of Defence Staff Giuseppe Cavo Dragone and the Chief of the Italian Navy Enrico Credendino (November 2022); the Secretary-General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Ettore Sequi (December 2022); the Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Giorgio Silli (January 2023); Italian Defence Minister Guido Crosetto and Agriculture Minister Francesco Lollobrigida (February 2023).
During the meeting at Qasr al Shati, PM Meloni and UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) discussed the main regional and international issues. As for the Ukrainian war, PM Meloni expressed Italy’s interest to cooperate with the UAE, highlighting the contribution that the Gulf country can make in facilitating a peace process. PM Meloni also emphasised the key role that the UAE could play in the framework of the Italian “Mattei Plan” for Africa – with a focus on energy security and energy transition – as well as on issues of crucial importance for Italy (e.g., the stabilisation of Libya, the containment of the economic and financial crisis in Tunisia, the curbing of irregular migrant flows).
The two leaders adopted a Declaration of Intent on promoting Italy-UAE relations to the level of strategic partnership, “on the basis of confidence, understanding and mutual respect”. The goal is to increase areas for cooperation and mutual interest. These include diplomacy, energy and defence as well as economy and trade, food security, science and technology, education and culture. In her press briefing following the meeting, Meloni concluded that the visit was “strongly positive”, going “beyond initial expectations”.
Furthermore, Foreign Minister Tajani and President-Designate for COP28 Sultan Ahmed al Jaber announced a Declaration of Intent on enhancing cooperation within the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties – which will be hosted in Dubai between 30 November and 12 December 2023. The two countries’ national green energy policies are potentially complementary since both are committed to a low-carbon transition, aimed at reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. This, coupled with the fact that Italy is currently the fourth-largest provider of components for the UAE’s renewables industry, is expected to increase opportunities for bilateral cooperation on energy transition.
The delegation during PM Meloni’s visit also included Eni’s CEO Claudio Descalzi. Eni already has a consolidated energy cooperation with Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC). This was further expanded with the signing, on the margins of Meloni’s visit, of a Memorandum of Understanding between Eni and ADNOC setting a framework of cooperation for future joint projects on sustainable development, energy efficiency, low-carbon solutions and carbon capture technology, as well as joint investments in clean energy (e.g., green hydrogen).
In the economic field, PM Meloni’s visit to Abu Dhabi represented an opportunity to reaffirm both countries’ strong interest in bolstering bilateral trade and consolidate the presence of the over 600 Italian firms operating in the Gulf country. Italy is already the first EU trade partner of the UAE – especially for jewellery and supplies of technology for the oil and gas sector – and its exports to the Gulf country grew by 22.6 percent in the first half of 2022. With its strong machinery, fashion, food, automotive parts and pharmaceuticals sectors, amongst others, Italy is consistently ranked as the second largest manufacturing country in Europe and can play a significant role in further developing the UAE’s industrial sector.
Aside from any economic consideration, the meeting between Italian PM Meloni and UAE President MbZ made a political impact. The ability of both countries in fostering a dialogue based on mutual trust and perceiving each other as reliable partners will be key to making the renewed Italy-UAE partnership truly strategic. In this context, the Med-Or Foundation organized in October 2022 a two-day experts’ workshop on “New Horizons for Cooperation between Italy and the UAE”. The event was attended by Italian experts and senior diplomats, and a group of prominent Emirati scholars from leading UAE research centres. During the workshop, there was wide agreement that the shifting geopolitical context calls for the beginning of new, constructive relations between Italy and the UAE.
In recent years, misconceptions have weakened bilateral relations. These reached their lowest ebb with Italy’s ban on arms exports to the UAE in January 2021 and the subsequent decision by the UAE to close the Italian military base in Al-Minhad. However, geopolitical developments, both at the regional and international level, are creating new momentum for the re-launch of strategic dialogue between the two countries. In this context, the visit to the UAE of Italian PM Meloni had a meaningful political impact, showcasing the interest of both leaderships in making Italy and the UAE key regional partners. This will require both countries to open up a new chapter in their bilateral relations, enhance confidence-building and pay more attention to each other’s concerns and strategic priorities.