Thriving at fifty


Nicola Lener, Ambassador of Italy to the UAE
Nicola Lener, Ambassador of Italy to the UAE

As the UAE and Italy celebrate the Golden Jubilee of their bilateral relationship this year, Nicola Lener, Ambassador of Italy to the UAE, shares his thoughts on the future-forward collaboration between the two nations. Excerpts from the interview:


Rhonita Patnaik

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Published: Mon 25 Apr 2022, 11:05 AM

Fifty years of diplomatic relations. How is the Embassy celebrating this milestone?

The year 2022 is quite an important and symbolic one for our bilateral relations that were established in June 1972. Months after the creation of the UAE as a federation in 1972, we established our diplomatic relations with the UAE, initially operating from Kuwait for five-six years, during which time our ties grew exponentially. By the end of the 1970s, we established a fully-fledged Embassy in Abu Dhabi. This year, we are celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of our relations with the establishment of a new and upgraded Embassy in Abu Dhabi for our ever-growing staff. I am proud to say that the creation of the new Embassy was my first project as the Ambassador to the UAE.

There will be new additions to the Embassy team such as the appointment of a Scientific Attaché to look after the research and development cooperation in the UAE. Besides that, we have already appointed a Financial Attaché from the Central Bank of Italy to advise on economic cooperation with the UAE. These are just a few additions to the team as our bilateral relations grow within this country.

On this occasion of the Golden Jubilee of our bilateral relations, we are looking forward to celebrate our Italy National Day falling on June 2 at the premises of the new Embassy, which we hope to be special. To commemorate this occasion, the Embassy will also publish a book about the contribution of Italian architects to the urban industrial landscape of the UAE over the last 50 years as a tribute to our bilateral relations.

With the Expo 2020 underway in Dubai, there were several important visits that took place, including our Minister of Foreign Affairs. In the coming weeks, we are expecting more high level visits including the Minister of Agriculture, the Minister of Justice and the Minister of Gender Equality. We are also looking forward to having the next round of the Joint Economic Commission to enhance the bilateral activity. I believe it is a very important year for us and our bilateral relations.

Luigi Di Maio, Italy Foreign Minister, with Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.
Luigi Di Maio, Italy Foreign Minister, with Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.

You mentioned about the Scientific Attaché in the Embassy. Does this mean that you have a lot of R&D collaborations with the UAE coming up?

Appointing a Scientific Attaché in the UAE is a testimony to the fact that we attach a lot of significance to R&D collaboration and innovations with the UAE. For Italy, the UAE is a regional hub of expertise and innovation, and therefore, appointing an attaché will go a long way in connecting with research centres and universities in Dubai. This is a priority for us to foster relations in the fields of science, technology and innovation. We have organised several initiatives in this field. We saw a great deal of opportunities for our bilateral relations with the UAE even before Expo 2020 Dubai, which grew further during Expo 2020 and will continue to grow in future.

What are the most important industries in trade between both countries currently, and into which other sectors are you planning to further explore?

In the year 2020, Italy was the biggest trading partner for the UAE in the European Union and the UAE has been the biggest partner for Italy in the MENA region. This corroborates our strong alliance. We have a quite remarkable trade surplus for Italy except in 2020 when there was a general contraction, owing to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Comparing 2021 to 2019, in the first 10 months of last year, the bilateral trade touched Euro 5.3 billion. And the whole of 2019 recorded about Euro 5.5 billion. We are seeing a promise in further development of our relations, which is positive for both countries. Our export expertise to the world is machinery. Italy has a whole gamut of products and services to suit local manufacturers in the UAE. Other areas of trade include food, furniture and chemicals, which are equally important.

Coming to the energy and construction cooperation between the two nations, the UAE is a host to a lot of Italian oil and gas companies including ENI, Saipem, Technimo, etc. who have signed both onshore, offshore and E&P deals. Italian construction companies have been part of many great projects in the UAE. For instance, Itinera is building the interconnection connecting Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island and the Corniche. Another global player in the construction world, the Italian brand Salini Impregilo is designing the Umm Lafina project that will begin at Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Street near the Al Bateen Airport, traverse Umm Lafina Islands and connect to the Al Reem island in Abu Dhabi.

Besides these, the Embassy is also assisting the setup of several small and medium enterprises in the UAE. Our bilateral cooperation has newer priorities — health and life sciences being the most recent ones, such as agritech for instance, and renewable energy as well. One such company is Dante Labs, which specialises in genomics. We are also accompanying these developments with some activities between our universities and research centres as well as some specific programmes.

Last year, Italy included the UAE in its Gobal Startup Programme, under which several startups companies were sent to partner nations for incubation. The UAE received 10-11 startups at the Dubai Future Foundation for a training incubation programme. A few of the startups have even established businesses here. This is the kind of work that is pushing the innovation and startup sector in the UAE. And this is a reason for us to invest more and more in coming years in the country.

Moving forward, we are now developing programmes to attract the startups from the UAE in Italy and are already seeing a very interesting potential for integration. Interestingly, the UAE is moving ahead with innovations in the service sector, whereas, Italy can incubate and help accelerate startups with solutions for the manufacturing sector. This can be complementary for both sides. There is scope for us to tap development solutions in our country, and we are building an ecosystem, making it more and more attractive for the startups from the UAE.

What are the facilities that Italy is providing for UAE startups?

Italy has introduced Cassa Depositi e Prestiti SpA (CDP) VC to support startup with ‘Fund for Innovation’ devoted to the joint investments between Italian and international startups. And we are now designing the programme to have an incubator for international startups, especially in Rome. We think we will be able to host a startup shortly in our country. In Milan, we have a fintech centre working to increase our cooperation and innovation in fintech and attract startups.

Could you give me an overview of the current state of the Italian companies in the UAE and the community at large?

We reckon that roughly 600 companies established in the UAE last year in both onshore and offshore activities. Apart from the big companies in energy and infrastructure sectors, we have also several smaller companies active in trade, consultancy as well as life sciences, without excluding other sectors such as smart cities, cyber security and renewable energy.

The life sciences and agri-food tech sector division see a lot of potential in the UAE. During the pandemic, we witnessed the shortening of global supply chain and regionalisation of trade flows, which was very prominent in the health sector. Many European and Italian companies, which were manufacturing goods far from Italy, realised that in emergency situations, the distance can pose a risk and therefore, lead to difficulties in accessing the product. So, many companies decided to reassign some production activities closer to our county. Indeed, some companies did this and enjoyed financial incentives to return to Italy. However, this cannot be applied to all the sectors as there is a cost structure involved. But for some, to have them located here in the UAE could be a real advantage given its outstanding logistical and transportation capabilities. We believe that this could be an interesting industry platform for Italian companies to access the big market around the Arabian Peninsula and the UAE, including South Asia, the Middle East and Africa being just five hours away. Thus, we are encouraging the UAE as the future base for Italian and European companies.

The Italian community in the UAE is the biggest in the Arab region. Also, a lot more Italians reside here than in countries that are larger in size than the UAE. This says a lot about the level of attraction of this country for our nationals. We are also proud of the contribution that they are making in the UAE to knit the multicultural and social fabric, which helps to create and increase the relation between the two governments. This is because sometimes we have bilateral agreements stemming from the cooperation between companies, universities and other centres, which helps to better understand each other. On the other side, the UAE is attracting a lot of Italian tourists, especially to Dubai. We have also seen Italians being attracted to the UAE after talking to Emirati friends and other nationalities who reside in the UAE.

Likewise, we invite people from the UAE to visit Italy. Last year, Italy created a travel corridor for Covid-19 tested flights that allowed people from the UAE to access Italy under certain guidelines. This measure was only available for the selected countries like the US, Japan, Canada, including the UAE.

Are there any initiatives planned to promote Italy abroad?

Absolutely. In February 2022, we officially launched in Dubai the first worldwide nation branding campaign, “Italy is simply extraordinary: BeIT”. The campaign will promote Italy through the values that define us like passion, creativity, style, heritage, diversity and innovation. Through articulated videos and a new brand identity, we want to share our way of life with people around the world and in the UAE in a much less traditional way. The idea is to help build a more updated image of Italy.

The campaign aims to attract more tourists to Italy but more importantly to increase investments and foster our partnerships around the world. We are also looking forward to having improved commercial relations with the other countries and the UAE.

Your thoughts on the Italy Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai?

We have invested massively at Expo 2020 Dubai to ensure visible participation. The pavilion was one of the most visited at the Expo and almost on a daily basis, we conducted workshops and conferences being held on topics revolving around mobility, opportunity and sustainability. Besides these, the pavilion was hosting a series of innovation talks on different sectors, including agriculture, food, energy, infrastructure and non-technical parallel to the main event and organising several cultural activities for various artists from various parts of Italy.

Renowned dancer and artist Roberto Bolle and composer and cellist Giovanni Sollima made glittering performances at Expo 2020 Dubai. Expo 2020 Dubai was also an excellent platform for bilateral visits, which contributed to further developing our bilateral relations with the UAE.


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