Malta looks to improve ties with post-revolution Arab states

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Malta hopes to rekindle diplomatic ties with post-revolutionary Arab states, Maltese officials said this week.

The Mediterranean island’s proximity to North Africa is being touted as a means to help transitional Arab countries such as Libya bolster their connections with Europe.

“I believe we can be that interlocutor that helps these new state institutions to get their act together to have partnerships and association agreements with the European Union,” Malta’s newly-elected Prime Minister Joseph Muscat told Al Arabiya on Wednesday.

“Some of our neighbors until now don’t have the necessary experience to do that. We can see this from Libya and Tunisia to Egypt, Algeria and Morocco.”

In 2011, Malta – an ancient gateway to mainland Europe – suffered business losses due to violence in Libya and Tunisia. Cruise-line passengers removed Tunisia from their itineraries, while lost business from Europe was documented due to Malta’s proximity to the upheaval.

“People kept away from investments when they saw the instability,” Malta’s Foreign Minister George Vella told Al Arabiya on Thursday.

Moving past North Africa’s political flux, Malta is trying to translate its foreign policy into “trade, export opportunities and economic development,” Vella said.

Small but mighty in the Middle East

Malta, a tiny island with a population of 412,000, will have a major political role to play in the Middle East when the country takes the presidency of the European Union for the first time, said Muscat.

This “gives us the opportunity to influence the E.U. agenda” and “steer a number of policies.”

With the island’s strategic location at the centre of the Mediterranean and its strong historic Arabic influence, “it’s natural to put a Middle Eastern dimension to our presidency,” Muscat added.

“We like to think of ourselves not only as a European country, but also as a Mediterranean country, bringing in an African dimension to it,” the prime minister said.

“I think we’re small enough to be trusted, a threat to no one, and we’re proud of that,” said Muscat.

“We’ve been very much historically involved in the Israeli-Palestinian issue. We were one of the first states in the world to recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization, and to give an embassy to the Palestinian people in 1976.

“But we also think of ourselves as being close to the Israeli people. We can relate to both the Palestinians and Israelis, and believe there’s scope for us to help in the dialogue between the two.”

Malta is also aiming for greater cooperation with Gulf states.

It has had good relations with Saudi Arabia since the 1970s, said Vella. A consular office was opened in Dubai in 2003, and in Kuwait last year, with an influx of Kuwaitis coming to the island through government-sponsored student programs.