ROME — Italy’s prime minister is visiting India and the United Arab Emirates this week to reset defense ties after a series of diplomatic crises saw Italian defense sales banned in India and Italian military personnel ejected from a key base in the Gulf.
Prime minister Giorgia Meloni landed in New Delhi on Thursday to meet Indian leader Narendra Modi ahead of a trip to Abu Dhabi on Friday and Saturday – a tour which Rome officials hope will sweeten up soured relationships with India and Dubai.
In New Delhi, Meloni told Modi she wanted to get defense sales back on track, while Modi talked up opportunities for defense industry coproduction between the two countries.
The Indian leader also announced the two countries would start joint military exercises and training.
“Prime Minister Meloni’s visit is expected to further strengthen and deepen the long-standing relationship between India and Italy,” the Indian foreign ministry said in a statement.
Managers from Italian state defense firms Leonardo and Fincantieri attended a business forum with Indian CEOs hosted by Italy’s foreign minister Antonio Tajani and Indian commerce and industry minister Piyush Goyal.
“This was a reopening of channels, a return to normal – there was no deals but it was about the building of a framework,” an Italian government source told Defense News.
The Italian visit to India marked a remarkable turnaround in relations that have been stalled for a decade over an alleged corruption scandal.
In 2013, the head of Leonardo, then named Finmeccanica, was arrested in Italy amid a probe into alleged kickbacks paid by the firm to Indian officials to land a 560 million euro ($593.5 million) deal to sell 12 AW101 helicopters to India.
As the case wound through the Italian courts, it sparked parallels probes in India before finally fizzling out in Italy in 2019 after multiple trials with the supreme court handing down a definitive acquittal.
By that time, India had ordered a ban on the buying of defense products from Italy, which was only lifted last year.
A second, recently resolved row between Italy and India dates back even further, to 2012, when two Italian Marines shot at an Indian fishing boat which approached the ship they were guarding and killed two Indian fishermen on board.
As India held the Marines in custody, the row became a diplomat spat which saw Italy vetoing India’s entry into the key Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), an exclusive club which counts 34 member states and controls access to missile and UAV technology by non-members.
It was only last year that India’s supreme court ended all proceedings against the Marines as Italy handed over $1.36 million in compensation.
As she heads from India to Abu Dhabi in the UAE, Meloni will be looking to bury the hatchet over another diplomatic row, which was sparked by an Italian embargo on arms sales to the UAE ordered in early 2021 by a previous Italian government to protest the UAE’s military campaign in Yemen.
The UAE subsequently evicted Italian aircraft and personnel from the Al Minhad air base in the UAE and denied use of its airspace to Italian military aircraft.
Al Minhad was at the time a crucial staging post for Italian military aircraft heading to the Middle East, the Horn of Africa and the Indian Ocean.
Defense industrial ties between Italy and the UAE were also strained by the complex saga of the Hammerhead drone, a UAV developed from Piaggio Aero’s P180 business aircraft.
Italy-based Piaggio got to work on the Hammerhead after it was taken over in 2014 by Mubadala Development Company, an Abu Dhabi-based strategic investment and development company.
The UAE wanted to buy the Hammerhead, but also wanted Italy to buy a version and Rome agreed. But when Italy wavered on its purchase, the UAE walked away, cancelling its orders and placing the firm in receivership in 2018.
Now, Meloni will be seeking a reset in defense relations in Abu Dhabi, accompanied by Italian defense minister Guido Crosetto, who was also in India with the prime minister and previously visited the UAE in February.
Tom Kington is the Italy correspondent for Defense News.