Row breaks out over favourite for EU’s first ever special envoy to Gulf

Critics say former Italian foreign minister Luigi Di Maio lacks experience and has poor record in Gulf relations

A row has broken out over the appointment of the EU’s first ever special envoy to the Gulf, as internal critics allege the frontrunner, the former Italian foreign minister Luigi Di Maio, is poorly qualified for the job.

Di Maio, a former leader of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), served as Italy’s foreign minister for just over three years until last month. He has now been selected by a panel of European officials as the best of four candidates to become the EU’s special representative to the Gulf states, beating veteran politicians with more experience.

The final decision is expected to be taken by the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, Josep Borrell, later this month or in early December. Borrell may also invite the EU’s 27 member states to vote on the appointment.

EU critics allege that Di Maio has a poor record in the Gulf, saying he presided over a breakdown in relations between Rome, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia through his clumsy implementation of a ban on arms sales voted for by the Italian parliament.

In January 2021 the Italian government revoked the sale of thousands of missiles and aircraft bombs to Saudi Arabia and the UAE because of their use in Yemen. Announcing the ban at the time, Di Maio said the move was “a clear message of peace coming from our country” and showed an “unbreakable commitment” to human rights.

In June 2021 the UAE ordered Italy to move its forces out of the Al Minhad military airbase in Dubai in apparent retaliation for the arms embargo. Italy had used the base for flights to Iran, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa during many multinational missions.

Di Maio’s critics say the ban was poorly communicated to Gulf leaders, provoking diplomatic consequences for Italy not faced by other EU member states who took similar action.

Cinzia Bianco, an expert on the Gulf region at the European Council on Foreign Relations, blamed Di Maio for provoking “the most severe diplomatic crisis between Italy and the United Arab Emirates in the contemporary history of relations between the countries”. If he became the EU’s special envoy to the region, she said, it would be the “premature death … of some kind of European Union policy, presence, agency in the Gulf”.

One source with insider knowledge said the panel should have taken into account this incident and other perceived foreign policy missteps, such as Di Maio’s trip to Paris in 2019 to meet “gilets jaunes” (yellow vest) protesters, an incident that soured relations with the French government. “This [appointment] sends a very, very bad message,” the person said. “It’s a completely insane decision and the real question is why Josep Borrell is taking this huge risk.”

According to two internal sources, Di Maio won over the panel, leapfrogging over more experienced candidates, including a Greek former European commissioner, Dimitris Avramopoulos, who has been his country’s foreign minister and defence minister, and has also had stints in charge of health and tourism. Other candidates are Slovakia’s Ján Kubiš, a former foreign minister, who has held several UN positions in the Middle East and north Africa, and Cypriot Markos Kyprianou, another former foreign minister and EU commissioner.

A second source, who said they were unimpressed with the shortlist, said Di Maio’s approval from the panel “has already sparked some debate” and that Borrell “may reconsider” its decision. “But that would then also be a problem,” the EU source said. “Now there is this debate around the candidate and that weakens Luigi Di Maio and it would weaken whoever comes after him.”

Hannah Neumann, a German Green MEP who chairs the European parliament’s delegation for relations with the Arabian peninsula, said she was disappointed that no women had made the shortlist. “I think it would have been a strong sign to send a woman there. And we have enough women in the European Union with expertise in security questions, as well as working on and with the Gulf countries.”

The EU envoy to the Gulf needed to be someone “who really communicates fairly and on eye level with the leadership in the Gulf countries, and who is accepted by them”, she added.

Di Maio, aged 21, was among the first to join the populist Five Star Movement upon its inception in 2009. He did not finish his university studies, and his work experience before getting into politics included waiting tables, labouring on construction sites, and stewarding at a football stadium in Naples.

But in 2013, aged 26, he became the youngest person ever to be elected as deputy house speaker, and in the 2018 general elections led his party to power.

He soon became known for his gaffes, including calling for the Italian president, Sergio Mattarella, to be impeached after he vetoed a controversial pick for finance minister, and mistakenly calling the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, “Ping” during a visit to China in 2018.

However, as Di Maio matured in the role of foreign minister, especially in Mario Draghi’s government, he distanced himself from the Five Star Movement, and completely broke ranks with the party last summer. He admitted to being naive in the past, especially over the calls for Mattarella’s impeachment and support for the gilets jaunes.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the EU has moved relations with the oil and gas-rich Gulf region up its priority list. In May, the bloc unveiled its ambitions for “a strategic partnership” with the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.

Di Maio’s appointment was championed by the former prime minister Mario Draghi, although Italy’s new government has not said whether it supports him.

A source close to Di Maio said the process had been followed correctly, adding that Gulf countries “appreciated the work he did as a foreign minister”. The source added that after Di Maio became foreign minister, he met his UAE and Saudi Arabia counterparts “dozens of times” and maintained “optimal relations”.

A European Commission spokesperson said the procedure to nominate the EU’s special representative for the Gulf “has not been finalised yet” and declined to “participate in media speculations”.

Contributors

Jennifer Rankin in Brussels and Angela Giuffrida in Rome

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