Merchants moved between China and the Arab world for hundreds of years on the ancient Silk Road, carrying with them exotic wares and captivating tales. An abiding fascination with each other’s culture had already crystallised by the time an Arab mission arrived in China in 651. So moved was the mighty Tang dynasty emperor Gaozong that he ordered a mosque to be constructed in Changan to memorialise the Sino-Arabian friendship. That affection and warmth, surviving the ups and downs of history, continues to undergird the UAE’s relationship with China.
As the UAE prepares to welcome Chinese president Xi Jinping on a state visit next week, bilateral relations between the two nations are at an all-time high. Commerce, the originator of the bond, is now so extensive between the two nations that China is among the UAE's top two trading partners, the total rising to $52 billion last year. China, for its part, considers the UAE a trusted partner capable of helping it meet its growing energy needs.
But oil is but one aspect of the trade relationship, which includes exchanges in a host of areas. Last year the two nations signed a series of agreements to deepen ties in 13 sectors, including health, education, infrastructure, aviation and financial services. The UAE's geographic position makes it indispensable to the realisation of China's Belt and Road initiative that seeks to revive the ancient Silk Road and forge partnerships among the nations in its path. Their co-operation has the potential to transform the global economy for the better, by helping to integrate nations marginalised by existing trade arrangements into a vast and mutually beneficial marketplace.
Trade, for all its importance, is itself one component of a relationship that is bound together by common values and people-to-people contacts. When Sheikh Zayed, the UAE's Founding Father, became the first GCC leader to be welcomed on a state visit by China in 1990, his hosts stressed the fact that the two "countries hold identical or similar stands on major international issues". The bilateral relationship received a further fillip when Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, went on a hugely successful tour of China in 2015. Beijing last year abolished visa requirements for Emirati citizens, while the UAE remains a proud home to more than 180,000 Chinese residents, who have made significant cultural and economic contributions to this country.
It is a measure of the importance attached by the leadership of this country to China that last year the government introduced Mandarin language classes in government schools. Relations between the two nations have never been deeper, but President Xi's state visit will be a reminder that there are still greater heights to scale.