The New Silk Road is slowly becoming a two-way street for Emirates

China's insatiable appetite for energy continues to mean strong business for oil suppliers in the Middle East.

China's insatiable appetite for energy continues to mean brisk business with the Middle East's oil suppliers.

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The dragon economy imported 21 million tonnes of crude in the first two months of this year, an increase of nearly 30 per cent on the same period last year.

In the other direction, there is plenty of evidence of China's growing footprint in the Gulf, including the UAE. China Railway Construction recently secured a US$1.8 billion (Dh6.61bn) contract to build a light railway system in Saudi Arabia.

Chinese companies are becoming increasingly successful at securing major construction contracts in the Emirates as they undercut rivals in price, often bringing labour and finance with them. More Chinese tourists are coming to visit, with the number staying in hotels in Abu Dhabi growing by 28 per cent last year.

Further increases are likely with the recent news that the Hong Kong carrier Cathay Pacific is launching direct flights to the UAE capital.

Last year, China's Ningxia Hui region held a China-Arab economic forum, designed to help producers in this relatively poor part of the country improve their exports to the Middle East. Halal produce in particular is seen as a key growth export.

"We'll turn Ningxia into an important base linking China and the Arab states," Li Rui, the vice chairman of Ningxia's government, said at the time the event was launched.

Also last year, a senior Chinese delegation visited the Dubai Financial Market with a view to smoothing the way for investments in UAE stocks.

And there are almost 200,000 Chinese residents in the UAE, about a quarter of them traders, and more than 3,000 Chinese companies doing business in the Emirates.

To top it all, China last year displaced the US as the largest exporter to the region.

Yet despite the New Silk Road becoming ever more well-trodden, UAE investments in China and east Asia as a whole have up to now been relatively limited.

Many Arab traders have moved into manufacturing hubs such as Yiwu, where restaurants serving Arabic food have opened, but large-scale investments have been more restricted.

Ben Simpfendorfer, an economist and the author of The New Silk Road: How a Rising Arab World is Turning Away from the West and Rediscovering China, believes Arab investors have been deterred because of the difficulties with investing in large, well-established Chinese companies. Most such companies are wholly or partly owned by the state and there are restrictions on foreign investment.

Yet there are now signs of greater investment by Gulf-based entities. The petrochemical sector is acting as a spur to some of these investments, notably with the Abu Dhabi-based plastics maker Borouge, which last year set up a compounding factory near Shanghai, along with several logistics facilities.

But other sectors are also involved. In March, the Dubai group Jumeirah Hotels & Resorts opened Jumeirah Himalayas Hotel Shanghai, and the company has five other projects under development in China.

Among the largest Gulf investments in China is the Dubai Government-controlled DP World's purchase of ports in Hong Kong, Qingdao, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Tianjin and Yantai.

And an agreement in March between the UAE and South Korea to co-operate on sovereign wealth fund agreements could further investments in east Asia as a whole.

An official at the South Korean presidential council for future and vision said the two countries would "step up efforts to support each other's state-run funds to make better investments".

"For example, if the UAE wants to invest in east Asia and yet lacks information, Korea's sovereign fund could help or jointly invest," media quoted the official as saying.

Only a few months earlier, South Korea's National Pension Service and the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority indicated they were looking at joint investments.

Mr Simpfendorfer, who is based in Hong Kong and speaks Arabic and Chinese, has noticed more Middle East investors in China "looking for companies that they can co-operate with, either back in the Middle East or in China". "Only in the last year or so, the increase in activity has become significant compared to the previous few years," he said.

Some might ask why it has taken so long for this to happen.

"Relationships are very important to both parts of the world," says Mr Simpfendorfer. "It was always going to take time for investors to develop a sense of confidence in China."

There is, he said, "growing expertise and comfort" among Middle East investors when dealing with China, something "that wasn't there before".

"It is family money that's already invested into certain industrial sectors," Mr Simpfendorfer says.

"They're looking for opportunities. Relationships are so important, so it's taken time. It's not going to explode overnight."