Italy and UAE can be antidote to 'sea of troubles' in world, ambassador says

Lorenzo Fanara reflected on a strong bilateral relationship in an interview with The National

Lorenzo Fanara, Italy's ambassador to the UAE, discusses bilateral trade, the Gaza war and illegal immigration. Aparna Jayakumar for The National
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A mission to build new and durable bridges between Italy and the UAE is what motivates the country’s ambassador to the Emirates.

Lorenzo Fanara said he is committed to building a better tomorrow, describing working with the UAE on cultural diplomacy as an antidote to the “sea of troubles” around the world.

In a wide-ranging interview with The National to mark Italian National Day on Sunday, Mr Fanara reflected on the relaunch of relations between the two countries, and on issues from Gaza to illegal immigration.

Italians sometimes forget that part of our identity is also rooted in Arab culture
Lorenzo Fanara, Italian ambassador to the UAE

He said relations between Italy and the UAE were “really excellent”, with ties spanning the economy, culture, technology, food security and climate.

“There are many sectors where there has been a clear, concrete partnership,” he said.

Italian companies have been in the UAE for decades, operating in everything from construction to afforestation efforts. Marble that adorns the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque was quarried in Italy, while an Italian firm completed mosaics on Qasr Al Watan.

Mr Fanara said the UAE and Italy were natural partners for many years but went through challenging times in 2020 and 2021, leading to efforts to “relaunch” their relationship. This was a priority when he was appointed as ambassador in 2022.

He said there had been an “intense political dialogue” over the past few years to achieve this, with 18 visits to the UAE in the past year-and-a-half alone.

“Relations have been relaunched,” he said. “I think we have achieved this goal.”

He highlighted the pivotal visit of Italian Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, in 2023, during which she held talks with President Sheikh Mohamed. Relations were upgraded during the visit to a “strategic partnership”.

Mr Fanara said there was an “incredible, strong” personal rapport between the two leaders and also “common ground on how they see the world”.

Cementing this, the Italian mission this month was honoured by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as part of its excellence awards, while current statistics show just how successful this relaunch has been.

Bilateral trade reached €8.7 billion ($9.4 billion) in 2023 – up 8.6 per cent on 2022, with €6.6 billion in Italian exports, statistics from the embassy show. In the first two months of 2024 alone, trade has surged by as much as 34.7 per cent on last year.

Around 20,000 Italians call the UAE home – up from about 7,000 10 years ago – with business opportunities driving the increase. The Italian presence ranges from major energy companies such as Eni to sectors from hospitality to construction.

More than 600 Italian companies operate in the Emirates with exports including industrial machines and jewels. A joint venture to build military ships was recently agreed between UAE defence conglomerate Edge and Italy’s Fincantieri.

Mr Fanara said another “fundamental” goal for him was boosting cultural diplomacy.

An Italian film festival takes place next week, while during his tenure the famed Teatro alla Scala from Milan, a Puccini festival and the ballet of the Roma Opera have come to the UAE, which “had a huge impact”.

Moral duty in Gaza

Mr Fanara said Italy had sent humanitarian and medical aid to Gaza, while Italian medics in the UAE had treated Palestinians brought to the Emirates for care.

“We are trying to alleviate the suffering of the Palestinian population,” he said. “It is not only a political call, but a moral duty.”

The envoy said Italy “strongly and unequivocally” condemned the Hamas attack against the Israeli population on October 7, but Israel also needed to respect international law.

Mr Fanara said humanitarian aid and de-escalation was important and Italy was pursuing this in the context of its G7 presidency with a summit scheduled for June.

Several European countries have recognised the state of Palestine. Mr Fanara said this was their sovereign right but Italy’s position had been consistent for decades.

“There is only one solution for permanent peace – a two-state solution,” he said.

Turning to the EU-led force in the Red Sea that aims to ensure safety of navigation, Mr Fanara said Italy has the tactical command of the operation, which was “not an aggressive” one.

He also highlighted how a Venetian merchant, Gasparo Balbi, was among the first to write about what is now the UAE on his voyages in search of natural pearls in the 16th century. A copy of the book sits in Qasr Al Watan.

“Italians sometimes forget that part of our identity is also rooted in Arab culture,” he said.

Tackling illegal immigration

Mr Fanara has held several important roles during his career, including political counsellor at the Italian embassy to the UK during Brexit and, most recently, ambassador to Tunisia.

It is the latter post that means he is attuned to the immigration issue affecting Italy for the past decade and dominating the agenda in many European countries ahead of the June European Parliament elections.

“I come from the southern part of Sicily, where the island of Lampedusa is located,” he said, referring to the point where many migrants from North Africa arrive in Italy.

“One of the most inhuman tragedies I've ever seen in my life … African people who drowned at sea trying to reach Lampedusa,” he said.

“Once people die … this means all of us, the international community, is defeated. The important thing is also to save lives.”

Mr Fanara said people smuggling was an illegal and immoral business but he was not worried about the elections amid concerns the far-right could exploit immigration fears.

He said Europe needs migration but it had to be legal and regulated, and was a humanitarian issue as much as a political one.

He pointed to the International Conference on Development and Migration in Rome last year, attended by Sheikh Mohamed, where he announced $100 million (Dh367 million) to help countries deal with large numbers of illegal migrants reaching their borders.

President Sheikh Mohamed meets Italy's Giorgia Meloni in 2023 – in pictures

Updated: June 03, 2024, 7:00 AM