Giorgio Starace Image Credit: Ahmed Kutty/Gulf News

Abu Dhabi: Giorgio Starace, Italian Ambassador to the UAE, says Italy, which takes over the presidency of the EU as from July 1, looks forward to further strengthening political, economic and trade ties with the UAE and other GCC countries.

“The UAE is a strategic partner of Italy in the Mena region, both politically and economically, and with Italy holding the presidency of the Council of the EU, it will continue to play its time-honoured role as a bridge between Europe and the Arab world,” Starace told Gulf News.

The Italian ambassador, whose country will set Europe’s agenda for the next six months, said high-level political visits have set the tone for cooperation on various fronts, and potential economic and trade partnerships have been explored to attract increased investments from the business communities in both countries.

Ties between the two countries are reflected in the growth in trade. Last year total trade surpassed €6 billion (Dh30 billion).

The Italian ambassador said export trade from Italy to UAE was worth €5.5 million, while the UAE sent imports worth €500 million to Italy.

The trade figures placed Italy as the second largest European trade partner of the UAE.

The Italian ambassador said given its status as a stable, safe and progressive investment destination, the UAE has become a strategic hub for Italian companies to launch their operations in the Middle East and North Africa.

He said Italy is willing to further develop its economic and investment cooperation with the UAE, particularly in sectors where Italy has exceptional preference and which are in high demand in the UAE market such as food, agricultural crops, oil, gas and medical equipment, and renewable energy.

“Since 2010, Italian exports to the UAE have increased sharply. There are already more than 300 Italian companies operating in different sectors in the UAE and free zones and this number is still growing as many Italian firms are coming to open businesses, make partnerships and take advantage of the favourable conditions of the UAE market,” says Starace.

“Now, as we’re approaching the Italian presidency of the EU, we would like to focus on a sense of cooperation with the GCC countries. We will surely try to push the attention of the EU to the Gulf. We will try to promote the GCC-EU free trade agreement. We are working on a good calendar of meetings,” the ambassador said.

Starace said Expo Milano 2015 and Expo Dubai 2020 have seen the two countries join forces in learning from each other, marking a ground-breaking new collaborative project.

The first of its kind between two universal expositions, the agreement between the two cities will see the hosts of the upcoming editions of the global event sharing knowledge, capabilities and experience relating to systems and processes associated with the organisation of a Universal Exposition and supporting recruitment and management of human resources.

“Thanks to mutual collaboration between Dubai and Milan, we will create a sort of continuum between the two events. The fact that it is the first agreement between two Universal Expositions cannot fail to strengthen both in terms of visibility, attractiveness and richness of visitor experience,” the ambassador said.

In travel, Italy has emerged as one of the top ten destinations for UAE residents, according to Visa’s Affluent Index 2014, which measures people’s willingness to spend, released in May. The country registered a 36 per cent increase in UAE travellers’ outbound spend, considered the highest in terms of growth.

Starace added that the Italian community in the UAE has more than doubled to 10,000 people within the last four years.

The ambassador said it was important for Italy to obtain a visa waiver for the UAE. “However, the procedure is not complete and a visa is still required for bureaucratic reasons. Probably, by the beginning of the next year, the visa waiver will be ready,” Starace said.

The aviation sector is poised for growth too. Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways is looking at possible investment in Alitalia. “Both governments are very keen to help this agreement. The companies are negotiating and we cross our fingers that this could be a strategic agreement that could further boost trade and tourism,” Starace said.