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Abu Dhabi, Italian business future lies not only in EXPO. Interview with Massimo Falcioni

Abu Dhabi, Italian business future lies not only in EXPO. Interview with Massimo Falcioni


The relationship between Italy and the Arab Emirates is a beneficial one that already generates a trade surplus of 3.6 billion euro for Italy. Trade is destined to increase substantially in the future – explains Massimo Falcioni, CEO of Ethiad Credit Insurance – and, thanks to new agreements with SACE, good opportunities are set to open up for small and midsized businesses. Moreover, the Emirates are working on diversifying their economy, and offering to become a hub to major markets such as Africa and Asia.

Emirates and Italy – a trade partnership successful story?

Italy has a trade surplus for 2018 estimated at 3.6 billion euro, with approximately 4.7 billion in exports. We mustn’t be deceived by the latest data showing an Italian export drop in the early months of this year; the slowdown is merely part of a global trend. The coming years could bring us back to 2015 levels, when Italian exports to the UAE amounted to nearly 6 billion euro.

Emirates’ exports to Italy have also grown, and by approximately 1.1 billion euro. Indeed, the Emirates are a major import-export hub, with a volume, excluding the oil sector, of 52 billion USD and re-exportation activity of 122 billion euro. The prospects that this market offers Italy are quite appealing since, despite a shrinking global economic framework, the economy here continues to grow. The reason for this performance is to be found in the diversification that the Emirates have managed to achieve: nearly 80% of GDP comes from sectors not associated with oil, and the component detached from carbon fuels is showing 3.7% growth.

This major diversification – led by the sectors of commerce, finance, tourism, air transport, chemicals and building materials – is helping to shelter the Emirates’ economy from economic cycles, and that model is one that bears studying: a nation with a population of 10 million on a growth upswing because it has opened up to the world; indeed, 82% of the resident population consists of people from other countries.

What opportunities are on offer to Italian businesses?

Abu Dhabi earmarked something like 12 billion euro in 2019 for the purposes of attracting investments and developing manufacturing in the Emirates. Italian companies have acquired major commissions in the EXPO planned for 2020, and many are discovering the Emirates not only as an end-market but also as a platform for expanding business.

Being a hub increases the resilience of those who invest in it because it offers conditions and infrastructures for approaching various crucial regions of the world. Not only do the Emirates have considerable political stability, but they are the third-ranked global import-export hub (after Rotterdam and Shanghai) managed by a public company that has turned it into a model of success it has gone on to export to 40 nations.

Logistical efficiency ensuring that transit procedures are completed in just 48 hours makes it possible to look not only to Asia (the current destination of 59% of all non-oil goods), but also to the promising African market. In addition, there are the areas of the Middle East and even Russia, with which the Emirates have historic ties: many Russian firms have invested here in the past as a way of sheltering against the devaluation of the ruble.

Are these opportunities that SMEs could take advantage of as well?

Small and midsized enterprises are viewed favorably here: the 600,000 SMEs based in the Emirates account for 82% of jobs. Communication is not the only area that needs working on, since some obstacles are the result of cultural differences. Europe works a lot through trade shows, while here the trade show is an excellent initial springboard that has to be followed up by a physical presence on the ground.

That was the point of the joint memorandum signed last autumn in Rome by the Italian and Emirates governments and national export credit agencies. Together with SACE, we at Ethiad Credit Insurance support Italian businesses wishing to internationalize by offering financial and insurance security. This collaboration between the agencies of two countries is a sort of unique experiment at global level and gives Italian firms an enormous competitive edge.

How did an Italian come to be head of Etihad Credit Insurance?

The creation of Etihad Credit Insurance (ECI) fell within the Emirates’ economic policy framework. The agency is 50% in the hands of the federal government and 50% of the individual emirate governments, and its task is to facilitate the export of products and services and non-oil investments of businesses located on United Arab Emirates soil, as well as to support the development of strategic sectors such as tourism, renewable energy and maritime and airport logistics. I arrived in the Emirates in December 2011 tasked with developing a credit insurance market in the Gulf countries for one of the main German sector operators, later taking charge of the entire Middle East for the main French credit insurer.

After six years of steady growth that eventually amounted to insuring commercial trade to nearly 60 billion dollars, in 2017 I was nominated to the post of CEO of ECI, the only foreigner ever to head a UAE federal government-held corporation. Placing a Westerner in this kind of operational role is emblematic of a great desire for expansion aimed at enriching the country with the skills and knowledge it still lacks.

How are Italy and Italians viewed in the Emirates?

Italians are appreciated in the Emirates for various reasons, starting with flexibility. Moreover, the quality of the Made in Italy label projects an image of professional expertise that is reinforced by the efforts of our diplomatic corps and trade promotion agencies. Then there is that creativity that represents our major advantage as compared with other European competitors. I think, however, that Italy should work harder on supporting internationalization, beginning with universities. I am on the committee of a post-graduate degree program that LUISS University dedicates to business in the Emirates; this has been a very positive experience that I feel could be replicated with many other Italian professionals working abroad who wish to share their experiences.


Since February 2018, Massimo Falcioni has been Chief Executive Officer of Etihad Credit Insurance (ECI), the United Arab Emirates federal export credit agency. Born in 1967, Massimo has more than 28 years of experience in finance. In Dubai since 2011, he came into ECI after having served as CEO for the Countries of the Middle East of Compagnie Française d'Assurance pour le Commerce Extérieur (Coface). Prior to that, he was CEO of Euler Hermes GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council Countries), a company in the Allianz group, Central Director of Euler Hermes Italia, Member of the Board of Directors of Euler Hermes Siac Services. He also has a long history in management for the Volkswagen group - Financial Services and Philip Morris International.