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What Italy’s New Proactive Foreign Policy Means for the Gulf and North Africa

Six months ago, in October 2022, Giorgia Meloni was sworn in as Italy’s Prime Minister. Meloni made the defense of Italy’s national interests the cornerstone of her electoral campaign. Therefore, it is unsurprising that her first five months in office have been characterized by a flurry of diplomatic activity geared at rekindling Italy’s foreign partnerships. While Rome remains keen on developing good working relationships with Brussels and Washington, Meloni has also sought to diversify Italian foreign policy by pursuing a more proactive and independent role in the Mediterranean and the Gulf.

The Mediterranean Protagonist Once More

As a peninsula stretching out toward the heart of the central Mediterranean, Italy has traditionally considered that body of water a strategic environment critical to its national security. Motivated by the compelling need to access energy resources at competitive prices and contain seaborne migratory flows into Europe, Rome has sought to establish cordial diplomatic ties with North African countries. However, its own short-lived governments and limited financial might, as well as the more assertive foreign policy of some of its European neighbors (primarily France), have often hindered Italy’s efforts to build influence and project power in the region.

Against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Mediterranean dossier has taken on a new strategic significance for Italy. The West’s push to sever trade relationships with Russia forced Rome to reconsider its dependency on Moscow and seek alternative suppliers for energy products. Launched by former PM Mario Draghi, Italy’s energy diversification strategy has delivered positive results. Since the start of the war, Russia’s contribution to Italy’s total gas imports has dropped from 40 percent to 16 percent. To its credit—and defying fearful speculation that her right-wing, Eurosceptic coalition would seek better relations with the Kremlin—the Meloni government has fully embraced the policy of weaning Italy off Russian gas.

In late January 2023, a high-profile delegation—including Meloni, the Italian energy giant Eni’s CEO Claudio Descalzi, and Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani—paid a two-day state visit to Algeria, which has recently substituted Russia as Italy’s top energy supplier and has enjoyed decades of friendly diplomatic ties with Rome. While in Algiers, Meloni met with Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune to explore opportunities to consolidate and broaden Italy-Algeria cooperation. The two sides met to discuss increasing Algeria’s gas supply to Italy. Bilateral meetings between Eni and Algerian energy group Sonatrach outlined plans to strengthen Algeria’s aging energy infrastructure, initiatives to modernize the country’s fragile industrial fabric, and projects to accelerate the transition to green energy sources. Leveraging the deep-rooted relationship between the two countries, Meloni evoked the memory of Enrico Mattei—Eni’s founder and a pivotal figure in Algeria’s quest to develop its energy potential—as an example of Italy’s good intentions toward its southern neighbor and its new proactive stance toward the Mediterranean. The so-called “Mattei Plan” for Africa envisions Rome offering North African countries win-win partnerships where the interests and needs of both parties are equally guaranteed.

Following her visit to Algeria, Meloni also traveled to Tripoli, where she met with the head of Libya’s Government of National Unity, Abdulhamid Al Dbeibah, on January 28, 2023. During the visit, the chiefs of Eni and Libya’s National Oil Corporation signed a 25-year-long gas investment deal worth $8 billion to develop two offshore platforms and a carbon capture and sequestration plant. Once fully operational, the energy facilities are expected to produce up to 750 million cubic feet of gas per day to meet Libya’s domestic demand and quench the thirst of European markets.

While crucial in Italy’s strategic calculus, the energy portfolio is not the only factor underpinning Rome’s outreach to Algeria and Libya. Enhancing cooperation with its North African neighbors is also meant to counter Islamist-inspired terrorist networks that continue to operate in the Maghreb region and curb the flow of migrants crossing the Mediterranean. Regardless of current political trends, the migration issue has remained remarkably consistent across Italian governments; Meloni’s approach of combining naval handouts and cooperation with Libyan coast guard forces certainly follows this pattern.

On the margins of the Italy-Libya summit in Tripoli, Italian Foreign Affairs Minister Tajani and his Libyan counterpart Najla El Mangoush signed an MoU including the handover of five ships—two “Classe Corrubia” cutters and three “Classe 300” patrol boats—to the Libyan authorities. Part of the EU project entitled “Support to Integrated Border and Migration Management in Libya,” the initiative aims to enhance the operational capacity of the Libyan Coast Guard to conduct border control activities, such as policing and search-and-rescue operations. The ceremony for the delivery of the first naval unit took place on February 6, 2023, in the presence of the Italian and Libyan Foreign Affairs Ministers, as well as the European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi. 15 days later, Italian Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi and his Libyan counterpart Emad Trabelsi met in Rome to launch a bilateral task force to improve coordination  in the security and migration domains. Although these initiatives address some of Italy’s security concerns, they fail to answer calls for greater scrutiny voiced by human rights watchdog organizations that have documented human rights abuses by the Libyan coast guard.

Rebuilding Confidence in the Gulf

Thanks to its non-predatory economic approach and moderate regional military footprint, Italy enjoys a comparatively good reputation among the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. However, Rome has often struggled to leverage its good graces with the Gulf monarchies to increase its influence. Italy’s struggle can be put down to its volatile domestic political scene; in some cases, short-lived governments and abrupt changes of leadership have caused a severe disconnect between Rome’s political agenda and the strategic priorities of Italian business groups operating in the region, deteriorating Italy’s trustworthiness in the eyes of the Gulf partners.

While the United Arab Emirates (UAE) stands out among the GCC countries as Italy’s first trading partner—foreign trade exchange between the two countries amounts to over 7.4 billion euros ($7.9 billion) in 2022—Italy-UAE bilateral relations have hit a rough patch in recent years. The poor economic returns reaped by Emirati investments in Italian companies, such as Etihad’s partnership with Alitalia and Mubadala’s acquisition of Piaggio Aerospace, contributed to the deterioration of diplomatic ties between Rome and Abu Dhabi. The relationship reached an all-time low in 2021 an Italian government led by a coalition of left-wing and populist parties vetoed the sale of munitions and missiles to the UAE. The arms embargo triggered a harsh reaction by Abu Dhabi which retaliated by evicting Italian air assets and personnel stationed in the Al Minhad air base and denying access to the Emirati air space to an Italian military cargo aircraft heading to Afghanistan.

After years of strained relations, the Meloni government has undertaken meaningful efforts to ease tensions with the UAE. On February 7, 2023, Italian Defense Minister Guido Crosetto flew to Abu Dhabi, where he met with his Emirati counterpart Mohammed Ahmed Al Bowardi to explore new avenues for cooperation in the defense and security sectors. Defense Minister Crosetto also held talks with the Secretary General of the Tawazun Council, Tareq Abdul Raheem Al Hosani, to discuss business opportunities between the UAE Armed Forces’ procurement agency and Italian defense companies.

In early March, Meloni and the Italian Foreign Minister Tajani conducted a second visit to the UAE. The number and nature of the agreements achieved by the high-profile Italian delegation in Abu Dhabi speak of Rome’s desire to bring ties with Abu Dhabi back on track. First, Meloni and UAE President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan agreed to elevate the Italy-UAE relationship to a “strategic partnership,” stressing the importance of sustainable development and economic growth as areas of mutual strategic interest. Second, Foreign Minister Tajani and Sultan Al Jaber, the UAE’s Industry and Advanced Technology Minister, Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC)’s CEO, and the President-Designate of COP28, signed a declaration of intent to nurture climate action-driven engagement. Finally, ADNOC and Eni inked an MoU to broaden the already-sound cooperation between the two hydrocarbon giants to the energy transition domain, focusing on emissions reduction, carbon capture solutions, and promoting hydrogen as a clean fuel source.

While it is too early to tell if Italy’s most recent efforts to mend fences with the UAE will be enough to put past grudges behind, the positive atmosphere created by the latest diplomatic missions has already started to deliver promising outcomes. For example, during the world-class IDEX defense exhibition in Abu Dhabi last February, top managers of Fincantieri—an Italian shipbuilding company—and Abu Dhabi Ship Building signed a deal to enhance cooperation in the “design, construction, and fleet management of military and commercial vessels.” Although Italy-UAE cooperation in the naval sector is nothing new, as the Italian shipbuilding giant played a critical role in the UAE’s endeavor to renovate its fleet, the agreement speaks of restored confidence between the Italian and Emirati business and security communities.

Within the GCC, Qatar is another country with which Italy has sought to build a strong partnership. Cooperation in the energy and defense fields has historically been the main driver of Rome’s engagement with Doha. The positive and profitable experiences of joint business opportunities have been instrumental in creating a climate of mutual trust and nurturing friendly diplomatic ties between the two countries.

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Italy-Qatar energy cooperation has reached new heights. The managers of Eni and QatarEnergy completed a partnership agreement in mid-June 2022 that established a new joint venture company to start gas extraction in the North Field East expansion project, the world’s biggest natural gas field. The Rome-Doha energy partnership is not limited to the Gulf region, however, as it extends to Mexico, Mozambique, Morocco, and recently to the Eastern Mediterranean. Indeed, Eni and QatarEnergy—together with French oil giant TotalEnergies—entered a new agreement to transfer a 30 percent stake in two offshore exploration blocks in Lebanon to the Qatari energy giant starting from January 2023. With the latest deal further strengthening the fast-growing synergy between Rome and Doha, Qatar is expected to play a pivotal role in Italy’s energy diversification and decarbonization strategies.

As the launch of a Qatari amphibious vessel (Al Fulk) at Fincantieri’s shipyard in Palermo highlights, bilateral defense cooperation stands on solid ground. Launched in late January 2023 in the presence of Qatar’s Defense Minister Khalid bin Mohamed Al Attiyah and his Italian counterpart Crosetto, the brand-new vessel is a 143-meter-long Landing Platform Dock and is equipped with state-of-the-art technologies and naval combat systems. The “Al Fulk” warship is the sixth of a batch of seven surface vessels that Fincantieri has delivered to the Qatari Defense Ministry as part of a nearly 4 billion euro deal inked in 2016.

Following up with the Italy-Qatar strategic dialogue inaugurated last year, Qatari Emir Tamim Al Hamad Al Thani paid a state visit to Rome in February 2023 for a second round of talks, which included the Italian President Sergio Mattarella, Foreign Minister Tajani, and Defense Minister Crosetto. The high-profile meeting points to the solid relationship that binds the two countries.

Limits and Opportunities

With a new government backed by a solid parliamentary majority in Rome, a window of opportunity has opened up for Italy to engage more assertively in the greater Middle East. However, Meloni’s ambitions for Italy to play a more active, meaningful role on the global stage remain vulnerable to the same internal and external vulnerabilities that undermined previous governments.

The sudden swings in Italy’s turbulent domestic politics and the lack of a visionary foreign policy strategy are factors to be reckoned with, rather than washed away. While Meloni has signaled that her government intends to play the long game in the Middle East and North Africa, frictions might emerge among the coalition partners over critical issues, such as Italy’s positioning vis-à-vis Russia and the appointment of high-level officials to state-owned companies (Eni and Leonardo). At the same time, although Italy’s diplomatic engagement with relevant geopolitical players (Ethiopia, India, Somalia, Israel, and Kenya, among others) speaks of a renewed Italian protagonism, the Meloni government has not devised a comprehensive, coherent strategy to help define its aims. Even the Mattei Plan for Africa is more a loosely-defined set of ideas than a point-by-point actionable plan. If a piecemeal approach continues to inform Rome’s foreign policy, its actions will never match its grand ambitions. On the other hand, the Middle East’s fast-evolving geopolitical landscape might put a strain on Italy’s ability to manage regional tensions. Indeed, the precarious standoff in Libya and Algeria’s struggles to meet domestic demands for better socioeconomic conditions loom over the Meloni administration’s efforts to increase Italy’s clout.

Ultimately, the Italian government should take advantage of the new momentum to rebuild trust among regional actors and promote the image of Italy as a trustworthy partner in critical sectors such as security and the energy transition. In this regard, top business groups will prove a massive asset, as they have long been entrusted to weaving productive relationships with regional partners when the Italian government was unable—or unwilling—to play this crucial role.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

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Leonardo Jacopo Maria Mazzucco is a researcher who focuses on the security affairs of the Gulf region. He is also an analyst at Gulf State Analytics (GSA), a Washington-based geopolitical risk consultancy. He tweets at: @mazz_Leonardo.

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