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On June 1, Luigi Di Maio took office as the first European Union special representative for the Gulf region. While the EU already had nine special representatives for a range of regions and issues, Di Maio’s appointment reflects Brussels’ desire to build an active political presence in the Gulf. Special representatives play a supporting role to the EU’s foreign policy chief, serving as the “voice” and “face” of the EU by actively promoting its policies and interests. With Di Maio beginning his initial 21-month term, examining his political past and the current trajectory of EU diplomacy in the Gulf is crucial to fully grasp the broader implications of his appointment.
From Anti-Establishment Leader to EU Envoy
In 2010, Di Maio, 36, joined the Five Star Movement – a small, internet-driven political party that became Italy’s most prominent anti-establishment party. Running for the first time in the 2013 general election, the Five Star Movement received massive electoral support, with Di Maio elected the youngest deputy house speaker in Italy’s history. As one of the party’s most vocal figures, Di Maio gained significant influence due to his euroskeptic and populist rhetoric, winning the party’s leadership in 2017.
The 2018 general election was a historic success for the Five Star Movement, making the party Italy’s strongest political force. The Five Star Movement Di Maio cashed in on his political clout and was appointed minister of economic development and minister of labor and social policies in June 2018. After entering office, Di Maio implemented populist welfare policies but also caused his first diplomatic incident by meeting with the leaders of the “Yellow Vest” protests against French President Emmanuel Macron’s reform agenda and expressing solidarity with their cause.
When the alliance between the Five Star Movement and the right-wing League Party collapsed and triggered a political crisis in the summer of 2019, Di Maio lost his posts but was appointed foreign minister in September 2019 following negotiations between the Five Star Movement and its new coalition partner, the Democratic Party. Di Maio caused a second diplomatic crisis in January 2021 when he took credit for a ban on weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The incident had severe ramifications for Rome’s reputation in the Gulf and triggered retribution from Abu Dhabi. In June 2021, the UAE ordered Italian forces to withdraw from Al Minhad air base and denied the use of its airspace to an Italian military aircraft flying to Afghanistan.
The central turning point in Di Maio’s political career came in February 2021 when, despite his controversial diplomatic track record, he kept his high-profile position as foreign minister after Mario Draghi – an economist who served as a senior civil servant in banking institutions in Italy and the EU – was appointed prime minister and formed a national unity government.
With a strong international reputation, Draghi took center stage in Italy’s foreign policymaking, partially overshadowing Di Maio’s role. Nevertheless, Di Maio had some opportunities to bolster his foreign policy credentials, especially by working to strengthen diplomatic ties with energy-rich Middle Eastern countries, an effort that grew in importance as Italy rushed to curtail its dependence on Russian energy following Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. In the wake of the invasion, Di Maio visited major Middle Eastern oil and gas producers, such as Algeria and Qatar, as well as Saudi Arabia, where he met with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan in a bid to revitalize Italian-Saudi ties.
Working alongside an experienced institutional figure like Draghi profoundly affected Di Maio’s political style and acumen and allowed him to develop his diplomatic credentials. This shift proved to be more than just a cosmetic, short-lived adjustment when internal frictions within the Five Star Movement over military support for Ukraine prompted Di Maio, along with a breakaway group of parliamentarians, to leave the party in June 2022 and back the Draghi-led government’s decision to arm Kyiv. Nevertheless, efforts to save the national unity government failed as the Five Star Movement and the League withdrew their support for the governing coalition, triggering a snap general election that September. Since Di Maio’s newly created Civic Commitment electoral list did not reach the cut-off threshold for winning seats, he lost his seat in Parliament.
Shortly after the September 2022 election, Di Maio’s inclusion on a shortlist for the EU special representative for the Gulf sparked public debate. The pool of candidates also included veteran diplomats, such as Dimitris Avramopoulos, the former European commissioner for migration, and Jan Kubis, the former United Nations envoy to Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Libya. Nevertheless, despite his relative lack of experience and contentious past in the Gulf, Di Maio won the contest.
Two main factors help explain Di Maio’s successful bid for the position. First is the demise of one of the most competitive candidates, Avramopoulos, due to his professional relations with figures in the European Parliament linked to corruption allegations related to Qatar. Second is Draghi’s significant influence in Brussels, which reports suggest he used to rally support for Di Maio’s nomination. In addition, Di Maio dodged concerns raised by the government of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni that he might be perceived as a divisive figure by Gulf partners and potentially expose Brussels to unnecessary risks during a delicate period in EU-Gulf Cooperation Council relations.
A Reset in EU-GCC Ties
As some of Di Maio’s opponents noted, the decision to nominate a special representative for the Gulf came at a critical time in EU-GCC relations. With negotiations to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal with Iran stalled and Tehran’s hostility toward the West growing, Brussels has in recent years attempted to recalibrate its Gulf posture.
In this regard, the 2021 Kabul airlift came as a wake-up call for the EU. The crucial logistics support provided by GCC states – especially Qatar and the UAE – to EU countries evacuating their military personnel, citizens, and at-risk Afghans after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan underscored the importance of strong diplomatic relations with the Gulf states. Then, Russia’s war on Ukraine – which had cascading effects on the global energy market and spurred European states to reduce their dependence on Russian fossil fuels by signing deals with Gulf producers – accelerated the EU’s push to strengthen Gulf ties. In addition, Iran’s transfer of drones to Russia for use in Ukraine further exacerbated already poor relations between Brussels and Tehran.
On May 18, 2022, the European Commission released a “Strategic Partnership with the Gulf” outlining core issues and actionable points to drive engagement between the EU and the GCC as well as its member states. Most importantly, the proposal highlights pivotal changes in how Brussels perceives the Gulf region itself. The document stresses the growing geostrategic importance of the Gulf – which is identified as an “important gateway” connecting three continents – in the international order and suggests that a relationship rooted in shared interests can bolster the prosperity and security of Europe and the Gulf.
Mindful that diplomatic credibility and political influence are byproducts of an on-the-ground presence, deep personal ties, and lasting institutional engagement, the EU has scaled up its visibility in the region by increasing its number of permanent regional representations and official visits. Until recently, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait were the only GCC states with EU diplomatic delegations. In September 2022, shortly after the proposal was released, the EU broadened its regional footprint by inaugurating a delegation in Qatar. Moreover, the EU plans to open a diplomatic mission in Oman in 2023, bringing the EU flag to nearly every GCC state.
By the same token, every high-profile member of the EU diplomatic troika – European Council President Charles Michel, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell – has paid at least one official visit to the Gulf since 2022.
However, one year after the Strategic Partnership’s release, efforts to operationalize EU-GCC cooperation remain limited. Although some promising developments have been achieved on humanitarian and maritime security issues, other key dossiers that directly impact the day-to-day life of EU and GCC citizens, such as trade and the energy transition, remain largely underdeveloped, preventing the EU from taking on the transformative role envisioned by the Strategic Partnership.
Adjusting to a Gulf in Transition
In recent months, the Gulf has undergone major political and diplomatic developments that have redrawn the regional geostrategic map. As the EU aims to scale up its Gulf engagement, there are three key trends in Gulf politics for Brussels and its special representative to consider when reaching out to GCC partners.
First, the Gulf is navigating a phase of de-escalation, including the Chinese-brokered Saudi-Iranian agreement to restore diplomatic ties, ongoing Saudi-Houthi negotiations, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s readmission to the Arab League. By dialing down the belligerent rhetoric and posturing that dominated bilateral ties in the past, the Gulf states have shown a growing willingness to build a new regional security architecture in which constructive dialogue and peaceful coexistence replace head-on confrontation and zero-sum politics.
Second, the flurry of regional diplomatic engagement underscores a growing resolve by the Gulf countries to reassert their agency in regional affairs. Indeed, although external powers were involved in most of the major diplomatic achievements reshaping the Gulf’s political map, such as the Abraham Accords with Israel and the Saudi-Iranian deal, these processes were primarily the result of intense back-channel diplomacy kick-started by regional players.
Finally, after decades of unchallenged U.S. dominance, the international order is now in flux, and the Gulf Arab states do not want to get caught in the middle of the struggle for influence among great powers. Moreover, the increasingly multipolar nature of world politics has prompted the Gulf states to craft foreign policies predicated on strategic autonomy and the diversification of partnerships. As long as their long-term national interests lie at the intersection of the West and the East, the Gulf states are likely to pursue autonomy, maintain warm ties with all blocs, and eschew picking sides, especially on polarizing issues.
When news of Di Maio’s appointment broke, Gulf observers gave him an icy reception. Choosing a more seasoned diplomat – ideally someone with previous diplomatic experience in the Gulf, a good command of Arabic, and familiarity with the sociocultural heritage of the region – would have made it easier for Brussels to sell the new special representative to its GCC partners. However, considering that Di Maio’s appointment was met with lukewarm responses, the Gulf public seems to have softened its initial stance on the young EU envoy, shifting from deep skepticism to cautious optimism.
Although Di Maio might still evoke bitter memories in Gulf capitals, much has changed since the 2021 diplomatic incident. Di Maio’s confrontational posturing in foreign policy has been mainly symbolic, grounded in a loosely defined political compass, and primarily geared at generating domestic support. Besides, the key features of Di Maio’s career in Rome – a strong personalization of politics and a bold approach to delicate international dossiers – are unlikely to resurface in his new role, as the EU’s diplomatic structure prevents individual power moves and Di Maio has displayed a genuine political maturation in recent years. To mend his dented reputation and rebuild trust in the region, Di Maio will likely rely on the lessons learned during Draghi’s term as prime minister and pursue a balanced and constructive approach.
“The European Union is quite absent from the region,” Borrell affirmed after an October 2021 visit to Qatar. “The Gulf wants an increased European Union presence, and we have a strategic interest to engage with them,” he added. As the last of several measures taken by Brussels to shore up EU-GCC relations, the appointment of a special representative is intended to fill this political vacuum and create a conducive atmosphere for enhanced engagement. However, whether the EU’s push to build lasting political relevance in the Gulf will bring tangible results will rest on Di Maio’s ability to live up to the high expectations placed on his new role and the EU’s willpower to make its expanded regional presence count. It will also inevitably depend on whether GCC states are willing to let bygones be bygones regarding Di Maio’s somewhat controversial political track record and fully engage on strengthening EU-GCC relations.
is a researcher who focuses on the security affairs of the Gulf region.
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