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Former Italy prime minister under fire for interview with Saudi crown prince

Matteo Renzi’s conversation with Mohammed bin Salman and joke about Riyadh's low labour costs cause stir back home
Former Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi interviews Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh on 28 January 2021 (AFP)

Former Italy prime minister Matteo Renzi has come under fierce criticism after remarking that Saudi Arabia could be the place for a "new renaissance" and that he was "jealous" of the country's labour costs.

Renzi, who is currently a senator for the city of Florence, was in the Saudi capital Riyadh to take part in the kingdom's annual Future Investment Initiative (FII) event, often dubbed "Davos in the Desert," held on 27-28 January.

'I think Saudi could be the place of a new renaissance for the future'

- Matteo Renzi, former Italian prime minister 

On Thursday, he hosted the summit's keynote address, interviewing Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The theme of this year's discussion was "Neo-Renaissance". 

"For me, it's particularly a privilege to discuss with you about renaissance, because I am not only a former prime minister, I'm [also] former mayor of Florence, the city of renaissance," Renzi began, alluding to the Renaissance period of European history, which began in the Italian city in the 14th century. 

"Renaissance became great exactly after the plague, after a pandemic... I think Saudi could be the place of a new renaissance for the future," said the former prime minister, who led Italy between February 2014 and December 2016.

The crown prince, who is widely considered the de facto Saudi ruler, went on to talk about his ambitious plans to transform the kingdom, including creating a new city known as "The Line" and increasing the population of Riyadh.

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"The Line" is a controversial plan for a new 175km zero-carbon city built in a straight line, as part of the $500bn futuristic megacity Neom. The project has been described by critics as "nonsense" and "dreamed up from a sci-fi movie".

Regarding Riyadh, bin Salman, also known as MBS, said he wanted to turn the Saudi capital into one of the top 10 city economies, and to do so he planned to increase its population from 7.5 million to between 15 and 20 million in 2030. 

MBS posited that other global cities such as Tokyo, London and New York have high-quality services due to demand from large populations, and that "good demand creates good supply".

"I cannot speak about the cost of jobs in Riyadh, because as [an] Italian I am very jealous," Renzi later quipped, in a comment widely picked up by Italian media.

The Florentine senator also joked that the $1.4 trillion the Saudi sovereign wealth fund had pledged to invest by 2030 was comparable to Italy's public debt.

'No renaissance without human rights'

Renzi's appearance and remarks have been heavily criticised back home. 

Several observers raised human rights concerns in Saudi Arabia, doubting whether it would be the venue for a new renaissance. 

"There isn't any renaissance without respect for human rights," said LGBT activist Gianmarco Capogna. "I don't think we should [be] thankful for an incomplete law on rights in Italy, under European pressure, especially if we praise a country like Saudi Arabia where LGBT+ people face the death penalty."

One social media user wrote: "Stop selling weapons to those who use them to massacre civilians here, this is more like my idea of the Renaissance."

Earlier this week, Italy blocked arms exports to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates after concerns were raised that the weapons could be used to kill civilians in Yemen, in a decision that campaign groups described as "historic". 

This will include the cancellation of 12,700 missiles that were to be sold as part of a $485m arms deal agreed by Renzi as prime minister in 2016, according to Italy's Peace and Disarmament Network.

One Italian cartoonist sarcastically compared the Saudi government to Florentine Renaissance painter Giotto, who is thought to have drawn a perfect circle to impress the Pope.

"Pure renaissance your majesty... not even Giotto could draw zeros that round," he joked in a comic strip, referring to the fee paid to Renzi by the Saudi government.

The former Italian prime minister is on the FII's board of trustees, for which he receives an annual salary of $80,000, according to the Italian newspaper Domani. 

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"Having triggered a political crisis in Italy, Renzi found time this week to fly to Saudi Arabia for a 'special conversation' with MBS. He doesn't seem to have asked him about the killing of Khashoggi," wrote Reuters chief Italy correspondent Crispian Balmer. 

Several organisations pulled out of 2019's session of "Davos in the Desert" over the murder of Washington Post and Middle East Eye columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.

Bin Salman has been widely blamed for Khashoggi's brutal killing, which has cast a shadow on the crown prince's efforts to promote his image internationally as a reformist. 

Renzi is among a number of officials and executives who were accused by rights groups of "enabling a brutal government" by participating in this year's conference. 

Saudi labour costs no laughing matter

Renzi's comment about Riyadh's labour costs also did not appear to go down well. 

"The joke about labour in Saudi Arabia is serious," journalist Laura Cappon wrote on Twitter, before explaining how the controversial kafala system is used in the kingdom to bring down labour costs. 

The kafala system ties migrant workers to one sponsor, whose permission they need to change jobs, open a bank account, or leave the country. 

Over 10 million workers in Saudi Arabia are currently subject to the system, and rights groups have often criticised the policy as exploitative and a form of modern slavery.

"Anyone with common sense and a medium awareness of the place where he is would have avoided saying such nonsense. Especially a person who holds a political office," Cappon said.

Translation: Labour costs in Saudi Arabia.
Consultancy: 80 thousand.
I'm jealous too :)

The report in Domani refuted Renzi's claim about Saudi labour costs being low, pointing out that in Riyadh, salaries were $25,000 in the private sector and $35,000 in the public sector, according to the International Monetary Fund, which was not too dissimilar from Italy. 

Renzi's trip comes at a time when Italy is in political crisis, partly due to the actions of the former PM. Earlier this month, the senator withdrew his Italia Viva party from the government's ruling coalition, citing concerns about the post-Covid economic recovery plan. 

The withdrawal left Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte without a parliamentary majority, forcing him to resign on Tuesday. 

The backlash against his Saudi visit has forced Renzi to post an online video in which he accused critics of bringing up "distractions" from the situation in Italy. 

He said that he would commit to sharing his thoughts on Saudi Arabia and the wider Middle East after the political crisis back home was over. 

"At the moment we're discussing the future of Italy, not the future of the Saudis," he said. "Therefore we will continue to talk about schools, vaccines and jobs, not about distractions."