Italian businesses in Qatar in the aftermath of Arab blockade: a parallel with Iran

July 10, 2017

The experience with Iran provides a first guideline for assessing the possible impact of the ban imposed to Doha


The diplomatic relations among the Gulf Arab states are witnessing one of the worst crisis in decades as several countries decided to cut off their diplomatic relations with Qatar, imposing a commercial and travel ban and issuing an onerous list of demands to be met by the tiny, wealthy emirate. The consequences of the blockade, implemented in early June, were immediately felt in both the global financial markets - as several Western credit institutions stopped trading in Qatari riyals - and commodities markets, following the diversion of two Qatari cargo loaded with liquefied natural gas (LNG) headed to Europe. In all likelihood, the diplomatic standoff is linked to the dispute between the two major actors in the region, Saudi Arabia and Iran. A parallel with Iran itself, isolated for decades because of international sanctions, could be useful for providing a first assessment of the impact for the Italian companies operating in the country.

Italian export to Iran, 2008-‘16
in € billions. Source: Prometeia calc. on ITC data

Qatar and Iran are a major outlet for Italian companies producing instrumental goods

Indeed, the composition of the trade between Italy and Qatar, although on a smaller scale (1.8 € billion in 2016, versus the 2.6 € billion of that with Iran), closely resemble the one with Tehran. In both cases, energy materials account for almost all of the trade flows directed to Italy. Moreover, both countries are a major outlet for Italian companies producing instrumental goods: mechanics, (whose flows account for 30% of the Italian exports to Qatar) and electrical/household appliances (ranking second in the list of top exported goods to the country) above all. Last but not least, while Iran traditionally represents a privileged partner for Italian construction companies, Qatar currently sees the top players in the sector involved in multiple infrastructure projects, ranging from the construction of the Doha subway to the building of sports facilities for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

In the past days, much of the public opinion focused its attention on the future of the Doha's sovereign wealth fund investments, the Qatar Investment Authority, which owns large stakes in several financial and industrial sectors in Italy. However, as the experience with Iran has shown, there are other aspects that should be taken into account in evaluating the consequences of a possible extension of the Doha blockade. Particularly, beyond those directly linked to energy prices (it cannot be ruled out that a lower flow of LNG from Qatar would eventually result in a higher energy bill for European households and industry) there are serious concerns regarding the impact of the sanctions on the growth opportunities for the Italian companies operating in the Gulf region.

Italian export to Qatar, 2016
in €. Source: Prometeia calc. on ICE-Istat data

The Italian companies may have to rethink their strategies

Following the strengthening of the trade ban on Iran (2012), not only the oil flows to Italy dropped to zero in two years, but the Italian export to Iran was hardly hit as well. For example, flows of Made in Italy machinery and equipment directed to Iran were more than 40% lower (in dollar terms) in 2013, compared to just two years earlier. Even though the sanctions recently issued by the Gulf Arab countries on Qatar are not comparable (at the moment) to those imposed to Iran five years ago, the risks associated with the raise of trade and travel barriers will impose to the Italian companies to rethink their strategies. The risk is that the opportunities opened by the lift of sanctions against Iran [1] are hindered by the downsizing of this other important Middle Eastern destination.