Italy turns south, seeks GCC cooperation
The Italian government this month launched a new campaign to revive the country’s ties with the rest of the Mediterranean. The inaugural event was an international conference titled “Verso Sud — Looking Southward: The European Strategy for a New Geopolitical, Economic and Sociocultural Season in the Mediterranean,” which was held from May 12-14 in Sorrento, an idyllic resort town about 30 miles south of Naples, not far from Mount Vesuvius and the ancient city of Pompeii.
Italy’s new strategy enjoys the support of the EU in the form of significant funding. It seeks to leverage Southern Italy’s proximity and historical ties with the Mediterranean’s littoral states, as well as those of the “wider Mediterranean region” — about 50 countries covering much of the Middle East, including the Arabian Peninsula. Among its objectives is the establishment of new energy corridors to meet the green transition challenge, the promotion of infrastructural investment, tourism, and cooperation among universities and research centers. The strategy also seeks to combat the negative stereotypes about Italy’s south by addressing its uneven development compared to northern regions.
Indicating a “whole of government” approach to this initiative, the conference was attended by President Sergio Mattarella, Prime Minister Mario Draghi and many ministers, in addition to ministers and senior officials from the EU and neighboring countries. The eloquent Mara Carfagna, minister for Southern Italy and territorial cohesion, who is from the south herself, was the promoter in chief.
The Gulf Cooperation Council region could help fulfill Italy’s new strategy through several channels. First is conventional energy to help Italy and Europe deal with its current energy crisis, as the region is home to about 50 percent of the world’s oil and 20 percent of natural gas reserves. The Gulf states are also ideal for producing blue hydrogen, which is urgently needed during the transition toward renewables. Saudi Aramco and an international consortium in February closed a lease and leaseback deal, whereby Keppel Infrastructure Trust, the Silk Road Fund, China Merchants Capital and other investors acquired a 49 percent stake in Aramco’s gas pipeline network (Aramco Gas Pipelines Company) for $15.5 billion, indicating a readiness to invest big when there is demand and economic benefits to be gained.
Second, the two could engage in trade in renewables, including solar energy and green hydrogen, with the Gulf region well suited to producing both competitively. Last month, Saudi Arabia announced plans to build a huge hydrogen plant with a daily capacity of 650 tons of environmentally friendly green hydrogen. This is another example of an international partnership, with Saudi and American companies joining hands to complete the project by 2026. Other green hydrogen projects are planned in the UAE, Oman, Egypt and Morocco.
Third, efficient energy trading could take place through linking their respective electric grids. Regardless of the fuel used in generating electricity, it can be transported seamlessly through those grids. The GCC has established a shared grid among its member states and is seeking to extend it beyond its borders. The needed investments for those links are not prohibitive and the savings, through economies of scale and specialization, could be enormous.
Fourth, there is growing interest in tourism in Saudi Arabia and other GCC states and Italy is among the top global tourist destinations. Greater interregional connectivity would stimulate tourism and knowledge sharing, while creating significant opportunities for investment and job creation.
Fifth is agricultural cooperation. COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine have highlighted the importance of food security and the need to maintain food supply chains and create new ones. Agriculture is an important sector in Southern Italy and is of growing importance in the Gulf; it could benefit from getting greater market access in both regions.
Their long shared history should facilitate interregional cooperation. Relations between Italy and northwest Arabia, for example, go back millennia, but became especially important after the Roman conquest of Egypt in the first century B.C. thanks to Rome’s need to secure trade routes further east. The Romans established footholds along Arabia’s western coast and trading posts further inland. After the fall of Rome in the fifth century, those relationships continued with the Byzantines, who succeeded the Romans in the Middle East.
This much is fairly well known and Roman-Phoenician connections go back even further, to the first half of the first millennium B.C., which is also well documented.
What is less well known is that Arabian communities settled in Italy from at least the first century B.C., including a settlement in the city of Pozzuoli near Naples. Unearthed ruins, artifacts and inscriptions point to a thriving community, which may have served as a trading outpost. Some of those remnants are displayed in museums in Naples and the Vatican.
If those ancient forerunners were able, even with their limited means, to engage and trade with each other, it should not be too difficult for their descendants to do more today with the superior resources they possess. When the ideas presented in Sorrento this month come to pass and Italy’s new strategy is able to tap into the energy and trade markets of the wider Mediterranean region, it could establish — peacefully this time — a new economic and cultural “Roman-Arabian Empire.”
Besides trade in energy, greater interregional connectivity would stimulate tourism and knowledge sharing, while creating significant opportunities for investment and job creation.
Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
What was clear at the Sorrento forum was that there are countless opportunities for the two to engage, trade and invest in Southern Italy, the Gulf and throughout the wider Mediterranean. What is needed to actualize that potential is a mechanism to bring together on a regular basis like-minded investors, traders and policymakers to discuss opportunities and facilitate their fulfillment, including by providing advice, finance, tax incentives and other forms of World Trade Organization-compliant support. Italy appears to have taken the lead on that process.
- Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1