Forging ties in the marketplace

DragonMart supplies abundant evidence of how close trading ties between the UAE and China have become.

DragonMart supplies abundant evidence of how close trading ties between the UAE and China have become. This mall of Chinese outlets in Dubai, opened by Nakheel in 2004, has been described as the largest building selling Chinese goods outside China. A vast array of goods, including home furnishings, traditional remedies, television sets and oil paintings, can be bought at the 150,000-square-metre centre. Goods are sold wholesale and retail, so Gulf-based businesspeople - DragonMart attracts buyers from other GCC countries - can source products there in large quantities. Other, smaller Chinese commodity malls also operate in the Emirates.

Such trading centres helped to increase the number of Chinese companies in the UAE to a peak of about 3,000 and the population of Chinese citizens to as much as 200,000 at the height of the economic boom. Among those working in DragonMart is Lee Wang, 25, who manages Snow White Princess Trading, a wallpaper business. Mr Lee, who also uses the Arabic name Masood, describes business this year as "so-so".

"It's not [better than] last year," he says. "I think for some small businesses it is not good, and some small companies went back to China." While the number of Chinese living in the UAE may have taken a hit, the number of Chinese visitors to the Emirates, especially to Dubai, is growing sharply. In 2008, 96,300 Chinese guests stayed at hotels in Dubai, but the number soared after Chinese authorities accorded the UAE "approved destination status" in September last year, allowing travel agents to advertise the Emirates as a destination and send tour groups.

Eric Li, a tour operator and manager of the Middle East and Africa department of Beijing Jin Jiang International Travel, estimates the number of Chinese visiting the UAE has since doubled. "They want to know exactly what Dubai is," he says. "Twenty years [ago], it's nothing, but now the skyline is high. There are a lot of buildings." Many Chinese travellers visit Dubai for shopping, picking up designer-brand items tax-free.

Most arrive on package trips typically lasting four days and three nights and costing about 5,000 yuan (Dh2,700) per person, including flights. Visits often include half-day trips to Abu Dhabi or Sharjah. "Dubai is not far from China," Mr Li says. "It's shorter than Europe or Africa. That's another reason Dubai is popular in China now."