RIYADH: On his first trip to Saudi Arabia since being appointed the first EU special representative for the Gulf region, Luigi Di Maio has told Arab News that recent world events show that new collaborations are needed.
He was responding to the question whether European nations can afford to ignore the rise of the GCC and Arab Gulf states in a multipolar world.
“I think that the world is changing and there are new partnerships to build,” Di Maio said during an interview on Thursday that touched on topics ranging from the Russia-Ukraine conflict to the economic empowerment of women and young people in the Kingdom.
“There are old partnerships that we built during the last decades. But we are in a period where everything is changing, because of the terrible Russian aggression against Ukraine, because of the pandemic.
“And you (Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states) are taking some initiatives in the region that are very interesting for us and are very welcoming if they are oriented to de-escalation. So, I think that it’s not a question of ignoring or considering, but we have to work together.”
Di Maio, who took on his new brief on June 1, said the creation of his role should eliminate all doubt about the EU’s intention to deepen ties with the Gulf region.
“That the EU and the 27 EU member states appointed for the first time an EU special representative for the Gulf region is proof of our new ambition to take our work together to a new strategic level. And when I say ‘partnership,’ I mean a real partnership based on dialogue, respect and results,” he said.
Asked whether the decision to create the office of the EU special representative for the Gulf region had been accelerated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent global energy crisis, Di Maio said the move predated the conflict, and instead reflected the EU’s genuine interest in fostering closer bilateral ties.
“We started the negotiation and the creation of the joint communication before the Russian aggression on Ukraine,” he said.
“I was still a minister at the time. And I remember the process. The idea was the importance that you have at multilateral and bilateral level, and how the EU can do more in order to update the level of the partnership.
“Then the Russian aggression arrived. And I think it was a very good thing to approve the joint communication and to work on the appointment of the EUSR, because in a period where at the multilateral and bilateral level is changing everything in the geopolitical framework, it’s very important to be closer to our partners, our strategic partners.”
Di Maio began his Riyadh visit with a meeting with Jasem Albudaiwi, secretary-general of the GCC, where the parties concerned “advanced preparations for a fruitful upcoming EU-GCC Council on October 10 (in Oman) — a key milestone for implementing our strategic partnership.”
Di Maio also met with Prince Turki Al-Faisal, chairman of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, and Waleed A. Elkhereiji, the vice minister of foreign affairs.
Later he met with his European colleagues, including Patrick Simonnet, the EU ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Oman.
Di Maio was even invited to sample some Saudi delicacies.
Although energy continues to play a key role in the relationship, Di Maio said the EU and its member states are excited by Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 social reform and economic diversification agenda, which he believes aligns with many of the EU’s own projects, such as NextGenerationEU, the European Green Deal, and the region’s growing interest in hydrogen energy.
“The hydrogen projects that you are developing here are very important and we can try to have a strong dialogue about the ambitions in the hydrogen field, in particular about the demand of Europe, about the hydrogen and your supply of hydrogen in the direction of Europe,” he said.
“And above that we are not only speaking about energy. We are speaking about technologies, research. We are speaking about universities, schools. Because everything is linked to the new horizon of hydrogen and energy.
“And you, as countries that now are suppliers of energy to Europe, you are investing a lot in new technologies, in renewable energies. So, it’s a very good field where we can have a dialogue and we can try to have more synergies, I’m sure.”
During this week’s visit, Di Maio was able to see first-hand the progress of Vision 2030 since its launch by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2016, which ushered in a host of reforms designed to boost economic participation for women and young people, and to create a business environment conducive to shifting the Kingdom away from oil into new industries.
“I visited the Shoura (Council) yesterday and they explained to me how many laws they are changing in order to align Vision 2030 with the framework of the regulations of the country,” said Di Maio.
“You are making a transformation of your country. And Vision 2030 — it’s one of the important points that are showing us this change. And I met in Brussels not only with your great ambassador, but even, for instance, with the deputy CEO of the NEOM project.
“When I met His Royal Highness the Crown Prince, we spoke about NEOM and the projects, about the Vision 2030 and some innovative projects like NEOM. I think that now the real challenge is to try to work together about these projects, about our Green Deal, about our NextGenerationEU and your Vision 2030, NEOM projects and others.”
Di Maio believes there is scope for far greater European investment in Saudi Arabia’s giga-projects, including its smart city NEOM now taking shape on the Kingdom’s Red Sea coast.
The EU and Saudi Arabia already have strong trade and investment ties. In fact, the EU is Saudi Arabia’s second-biggest trading partner and number one foreign direct investor. Di Maio said he has no doubt that trade and investment ties will grow stronger.
“Of course. Now, in particular with your new programs about new technologies, new energies, and even education and our programs and projects that we are developing in the EU, where the (European) Commission and the member states are developing new projects oriented in the same way, in the same direction, I think that there is the opportunity to do more.
“Not only in order to increase the figures, but in order to increase the substance of our relations through these kinds of projects that are linked to the future of our young people and to our young country and you are looking forward to the new opportunities for these young people.”
The relationship between the EU and the Gulf states extends beyond trade and energy, however. Di Maio said common security concerns also play a key role in the strategic partnership.
“It’s very important to say that in my mandate, one of the pillars is security,” he said.
“But not only in a classic way, where we are speaking about maritime security or the classic concept of security, or we can speak even about cybersecurity, about counterterrorism initiatives … We have to speak about, as I said, in an innovative way, the nexus between security and climate. It’s very important.”
He added: “My mandate is of a facilitator of smart solutions, of supporting regional diplomatic efforts aimed at making ongoing de-escalation efforts sustainable. I am here to listen, to understand sensitivities and priorities of the countries in the region. And I am 100 percent dedicated to this great responsibility and to successfully implement it together with the EU member states, EU institutions, with you and the countries in the Gulf region.”
Last week, the Gulf countries issued a strong condemnation of Sweden’s decision to permit the burning of a copy of the Qu’ran in the capital Stockholm by an Iraqi migrant.
Asked whether his office has a role in preventing such acts as part of its mandate to build a strategic partnership with the Gulf countries, Di Maio said the EU wholeheartedly rejects the burning of holy texts — a view he says he raised during meetings this week.
“In every bilateral meeting I had during this visit, I raised the point from the beginning of the meeting in order to say that this individual burning of the Qur’an, it’s unacceptable, and any kind of burning of a holy book, it’s a clear provocation, is disrespectful, and at the same time, as I said, the EU rejects it,” he said.
“I think that any kind of racism, xenophobia and provocation does not have a place in our societies. And now is the time to work together to prevent further escalation and prevent these acts from happening.”
At their meeting on Wednesday, Albudaiwi, the GCC secretary-general, said Di Maio conveyed the EU’s regret, rejection and condemnation of the burning of the copy of the Qur’an.
Having made the transition from serving as Italy’s foreign minister and deputy prime minister to his current posting with the EU, Di Maio said he has always supported a greater role for the EU in forging ties between Europeans and the wider world.
“At the time when I was minister of foreign affairs for two years and previously deputy prime minister for two years, I supported, totally, the idea that in order to be stronger as member states, we need the EU as an interlocutor of other areas of the world,” he said.
“And the European continent, the EU specifically, it’s the real institution that can be a leverage for the member states of the EU in order to make new partnerships with the rest of the world.”