EU intends to better understand Gulf states, says its ambassador to UAE

Andrea Fontana tells The National that the European bloc aims to expand its experience with the region

EU Ambassador to the UAE, Andrea Matteo Fontana. Victor Besa / The National
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The European Union intends to “listen” and better understand Gulf states following the appointment of its envoy to the region, the bloc’s ambassador to the UAE Andrea Fontana told The National.

Mr Fontana, who leaves the post at the end of this week, said that EU officials "understand that we have to listen more to understand this country through the story that the people from here tell us and not what people tell us."

In June, the EU appointed its first special representative to the Gulf, Luigi Di Maio, Italy's former foreign minister, to officially take office.

The position was created following the launch of an EU-led strategic partnership with Gulf countries last year, designed to bring the GCC and EU “closer than ever”.

Mr Di Maio would serve as an “interlocutor for this region”, Mr Fontana said in an interview at the EU Embassy in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday.

“When you met him, he told you that he will come here to listen,” he said, in reference to The National’s meeting with Mr Di Maio in June.

Mr Fontana said a lack of understanding between Europeans and the Arab world still remains.

“Personal relationships are very important in this region. And they're very important at the highest level. So you need to have a constant and regular dialogue with their leadership and with the people who take the decisions in the UAE.”

Mr Fontana, who will be returning to the EU headquarters in Brussels to take charge of strategic communications, said the EU wanted to allow "more direct exchange between countries".

He called relations between the UAE and EU "important" and "evolving", as the UAE's influence in the region increases.

"That's why it's important that we keep and step up our dialogue with this country. So a growing relationship, a promising relationship, and the relationship that will evolve, I believe, in the coming years," he said.

"I think that in the last few years we have managed to understand the importance of this area of the world, and also increasingly invest in terms of our resources, and political attention."

Promoting regional security

The diplomat said the EU wants to be more involved in de-escalating tensions in the region.

He said improved relations with Iran can "help to improve the situation [regional security]".

Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia and Iran reopened embassies on both sides after years of tension. The agreement came after talks hosted by China in March.

Iran appointed an ambassador to the UAE for the first time since 2016 in April. The move was seen as a push for boosting growth in areas such as energy, trade, transport and tourism.

"I think that these are all elements that helped transform or change the situation into something that is more conducive to peace and prosperity in the region," Mr Fontana said.

"This is what we want to support and what we want to see in the Gulf."

Mr Fontana said the EU was built to bring peace to Europe, which it is hoped can be passed on to this region.

"On security we can also be involved, we have a lot of experience in Europe, in terms of working together in a European setting on peace and security. For us it's centrally a peace project and that's how we were born here," he said.

"We have a lot of experience there that we are ready to share with these countries."

Departing the UAE

Mr Fontana said his time in the UAE had been very "interesting and surprising," especially as the Covid-19 pandemic erupted a year after he took up his post in 2019.

"The positive thing is that we were lucky in this country, thanks to the vision of the leaders in the way that the pandemic has been managed to, you know, very quickly get out of the lockdown and then go back to normal," he said.

Mr Fontana also served as the Commissioner General for the EU at the Dubai Expo 2020.

The EU hosted several events during Expo which "played a role in bringing us closer to the Gulf because we had eight commissioners coming from the European Commission", he said.

Mr Fontana's message to his successor is to "keep your eyes open and experience the developments that will certainly take place here."

The UAE "is a country with a lot of potential with investments and developments taking place in surprising directions".

The diplomat said that his successor should "enjoy the journey" that the Emirates has to offer.

Updated: August 31, 2023, 12:28 PM