Europe

Making sense of the Italy-UAE rift

Earlier this month the United Arab Emirates (UAE) ordered the withdrawal of all Italian aircraft and personnel from its Al Minhad Air Force Base located on the outskirts of Dubai. The reasons given for the eviction notice is the displeasure at Italy’s decision to halt arms sales to the UAE. The halt in arms sales was due to the Italian government’s disapproval of the ongoing conflict in Yemen. The UAE is key member of a reginal coalition fighting Houthi rebels in that country. Italy claims that the conflict has created a humanitarian disaster (the UN recently claimed that 80% of the Yemeni people now need aid). The diplomatic fracas was complicated further still when on July 6th the Italian government announced that the ban on weapon sales to the UAE has now been lifted. The statement by the Italian government, though brief and unclear, was aimed at easing diplomatic tensions.

The forced eviction comes at a sensitive time for NATO-member Italy, who along with its other NATO allies is in the midst of a planned withdrawal from Afghanistan. The rift also complicates the fate of Italian businesses operating in the Gulf, in which the UAE and especially Dubai is a key hub. Italian media have reported that Italian companies are worried they would lose civilian contracts in this lucrative market as a result of the row. The whole episode teaches us a bit about Italy’s foreign policy and much about the UAE’s.

What is Italy’s foreign policy? The episode described above indicates that the Italians themselves are not too sure. Italy’s history points to a rich colonial past. From the late 19th century, Italy set-off on a grand colonial adventure which led them to the Balkans, the Eastern Mediterranean, Libya and the Horn of Africa. This empire was only really crushed during the Second World War. Fast forward about one hundred years to the present and one finds that Italy’s former colonial processions are still geostrategic flashpoints: The Horn of Africa is as unstable as ever; Libya, is reeling from the effects of a brutal civil war (one in which the both the UAE and Italy played outsized roles, often at odds with each other); and, in the Balkans and Eastern Mediterranean issues abound from the fate of Kosovo to maritime oil rights.

Al Minhad base in the UAE was selected as a logistical hub to supply Italian forces in places like Libya and the Horn of Africa where Italy still plays a role, albeit a smaller one than their imperial forbearers, supporting military missions mostly under NATO. It is in further-off arenas however, where Italy’s footprint is also, more controversially, seen.

Italy, of course, was part of the “Coalition of the Willing” that participated in the Iraq War of 2003. When the late former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld referred to the nations of Western Europe who refused to join the war on Iraq, such as France and Germany, as “old Europe” that immediately placed Italy as part of “New Europe;” joining the likes of many post-Cold War Eastern European nations such as: Albania, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, North Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Uzbekistan who all participated in that conflict some capacity. 

Italy is also part of the now expiring NATO-led multinational force in Afghanistan, making the Al Minhad Base even more crucial as a logistical hub for Italian forces exiting the region. It makes the Italian decision to end arms sales to the UAE all the more perplexing. 

It should be noted though, that the arms embargo was announced by the previous Italian government, led by former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. That government’s foreign minister was Luigi Di Maio, a member of Conte’s coalition partner – the anti-establishment Five Star Movement. Announcing the embargo, Di Maio called it a “clear message of peace sent by our country,” and adding, “the respect for human rights is a mandatory commitment for us.” Conte’s government was replaced by one led by Mario Draghi, but Di Maio was kept as foreign minister. 

Individuals are important because personal relationships are important in Arab society and politics – especially in Gulf society and politics. People and personalities, whether it is the prime minister or a coalition member or even a backbencher, are who Gulf leaders listen to. We can take the example of the Canada-UAE rift from 2010 as an example.

The rift between these two nations centered over aviation rights: the then Canadian government of (Conservative) Stephan Harper refused to grant extra landing rights to UAE carriers in Canada. The dispute escalated to the point where Canadian nationals entering the UAE were refused visas on arrival, as was the case before the dispute arose. Despite much diplomacy and negotiation, there was very little breakthrough (the UAE agreed to allow Canadians into the country with visas on arrival, but the landing rights issue lingered). 

Canadian Federal elections were held in 2011 with the UAE hoping that the Harper government would fall. When it became clear that Harper not only won the election but won with a healthy majority, the UAE decided to cease negotiations indefinitely. Sure enough, the landing rights issue was only satisfactorily resolved in June 2018 when the UAE reached an agreement with officials from Canada’s (Liberal Party) government headed by Justin Trudeau. 

The whole episode is a clear example of how UAE policy is formulated, even neighborly Arab countries are not immune. The recent rift between the UAE and Saudi Arabia, erstwhile allies who formed a deep alliance to counter the Houthi rebels in Yemen and who signed a strategic partnership in 2018 that included far-ranging economic and social agreements is also illustrative.

Two years on from these grand announcements, this partnership is in tatters. The point of contention being disagreements concerning negligible oil supply output figures. Since the disagreement ensued, flights between the two nations have been suspended, preferential tariff agreements have been cancelled and multinational corporations based in Dubai seeking business in Saudi Arabia were ordered to open branches in the Kingdom.  

If Italy is serious about its foreign policy and indeed does want to enter the complex Middle Eastern arena as indicated by its forays in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and the Horn of Africa, then it needs to be ready to play the game according to the customs, as well as the new realities, of the region. Whether the ruckus caused by the arms embargo can be resolved by the personalities in power currently representing Italy remains to be seen. Recent history and the examples we have shown above suggests that it will take time, or new people, for tensions to cool. The rest of Europe and their diplomats, looking to the lucrative markets of the UAE and the Gulf, have been warned.

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