Due to historical and geographic factors, Italy has rarely figured as a protagonist in the dynamics of the Gulf region and it has mainly focused its foreign policy activism on its immediate neighborhood: the Mediterranean and North Africa.
However, Rome has signaled an interest in playing a more visible, active role in the GCC space and Italy-Gulf bilateral ties have registered exponential growth during the past decades. Three main areas of cooperation – security, economy, and energy – have significantly contributed to building a friendly diplomatic environment.
Italy came to play a more significant role in the Gulf area in the early 1990s by contributing to the US-led Operation Desert Storm against the backdrop of Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait.
Although Italian troops were rarely dispatched to the Arabian Peninsula since then, they visibly contributed to promoting security and stability in the GCC’s immediate neighborhood. Italy took an active role in the US-led Global War on Terrorism after 9/11 by participating in military missions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Italian troops rarely engaged in combat operations when deployed to the Middle East. In most cases, Italy’s armed forces were tasked with non-combat duties. As a peacekeeper, an interposition force separating warring parties in combat zones, and head of training programs for local security forces, Italy’s army has consolidated a decades-long experience in deconfliction.
Italy has always been characterized by a strong maritime vocation and a long naval history. Still today, Italy markedly depends on sea transport lanes for its trade and energy supplies. Therefore, Italy is deeply committed to freedom of navigation and safe transit across chokepoints.
Through its naval assets, Italy is devoted to improving the security and stability of shipping lanes, providing mariners with a safe maritime environment, and intervening and protecting them from the malign activities of state- and non-state actors.
Italy has emerged as an active contributor to several maritime security platforms implemented in the waters off the Arabian Peninsula. From the US-backed Combined Maritime Forces to the counter-piracy EU NAVFOR Operation Atalanta and the French-led European Maritime Awareness in the Strait of Hormuz mission, Italy has regularly dispatched its naval assets to protect shipping lanes in Middle East waters.
More recently, Italy’s armed forces will contribute to ensuring the defense and security of Qatar’s 2022 FIFA World Cup. The Italian contingent will provide full-spectrum support to the Qatari security forces to ensure the safe and regular running of the sporting event, which is expected to gather thousands of football fans.
As the second EU manufacturing powerhouse, Italy eyes the GCC market as a promising destination to export its commodities and services. Italy-GCC trade exchanges are still adjusting to the shocks brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war, but data for the 2022’s first-semester signal a promising positive trend that, in most cases, markedly outweighs the same period in 2021.
While single cases display slightly different figures, precision mechanical products, chemical products, food products, pharmaceutical and medical products represent the bulk of Italian export to the Gulf region. Among the GCC member states, the UAE stands out as the biggest recipient of Italian export, with a value of roughly 3.8 billion euros between January and August 2022.
Some GCC countries have positioned themselves at the forefront of the freight and passenger transport industry. Many Gulf-based companies have consolidated sound expertise in offering logistics services as well as storage and distribution solutions.
Due to their capacity to develop more competitive and efficient logistics solutions that suit the increasingly demanding needs of constantly adjusting global markets, Gulf-based logistics companies have positioned themselves as trendsetters in the transport industry. Thanks to its unique geography, the Arabian Peninsula is set to become a critical transmission knot in global trade supplies and a vital logistics connector between East and West.
With a close interest in gaining a solid connection to global trade lanes to export its high-value-added commodities while securing stable access to supply chains to import energy products and raw materials to process at home, Italy eyes with growing attention the home-grown logistics solutions offered by the Gulf countries.
With a solid industrial fabric and no direct access to domestic energy sources, Italy has traditionally satisfied a high-quantity demand for electric energy for industrial and residential use by heavily importing energy products. However, the shortcomings of energy supply chains that emerged during the Covid-19 pandemic, the growing concerns regarding the long-term implications of climate change, and the severe impacts of the Russia-Ukraine war on the global energy markets have driven Italy to double down its efforts in further diversifying the country’s energy mix and pivoting it towards green products.
While the GCC states still see the export of hydrocarbon products playing a prominent role in their economies, they all have set for themselves ambitious decarbonization targets and are investing massive financial resources in the development of state-of-the-art solutions to support the green transition. With the GCC countries eyeing growing attention to creative initiatives to pivot their economies away from an oil revenue-based model, Italy-Gulf ties might reach new heights through cooperation in renewable energies-driven joint initiatives.
With a new parliament taking office and a government swearing-in last October, Italy has recently entered a new phase of its political lifecycle. Still, Italy’s positioning in the international arena is unlikely to experience radical changes.
By nominating some veterans of Italian politics at the top of critical ministries, such as the then-President of the European Parliament Antonio Tajani at Foreign Affairs and Guido Crosetto at the Defense, the government headed by PM Giorgia Meloni signals to international observers that Italy’s geopolitical and strategic posture will remain solidly anchored in the Atlantist and European camps.
PM Meloni’s pragmatic understanding of international affairs calls for the new Italian government to maintain a reassuring foreign policy posture. The Mediterranean and North Africa are bound to remain the priority areas where Italy will spend most of its diplomatic energies. Still, the need to cultivate more profound and meaningful ties with the Gulf countries is gradually becoming more relevant in Italy’s foreign policy compass.
Rome’s latest moves in the Gulf tell a story of growing resolve by Italy to contribute to upholding a secure maritime environment. The dispatching of troops and warships is a concrete display of Italy’s increasing interest and closer attention to the Gulf and its geopolitical undercurrents.