From fertiliser to artificial intelligence - the growing links between the UAE and China

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid in Beijing for key summit on China's ambitious Belt and Road trade plan

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - July 20, 2018: HH Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces (L), meets with HE Xi Jinping, President of China (2nd R) after a private dinner, at Sea Palace.

( Rashed Al Mansoori / Crown Prince Court - Abu Dhabi )
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Anyone who has witnessed the coach loads of tourists at the Mall of the Emirates or the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque will realise the interest in the UAE among ordinary Chinese people.

But the relationship between the two countries is much deeper than just excursions and shopping expeditions. As a part of global crossroads for trade and a key source and consumer of energy resources, the UAE and China will only draw closer together.

This week, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai has arrived in Beijing for a global summit on China’s Belt and Road initiative.

A keystone of President Xi Jinping’s economic policy, the collaborative drive aims to create a global trade route by land and sea that will link China, South and Central Asia and the Middle East to Europe.

According to the World Bank it will encompass a third of the world’s GDP, six out of 10 people and three quarters of the world’s known energy reserves.

Critics of Belt and Road, especially in Europe and the US, have claimed it will unduly spread Chinese influence, lacks transparency and burdens poorer nations with expensive infrastructure projects they cannot afford.

It is to address and clarify these issues, that Beijing has called this summit of heads of state. As the key component of China’s gateway to the Middle East and a major supplier of oil and gas, the voice of Sheikh Mohammed and the UAE will be listened to very carefully.

These connections were noted by Sheikh Mohammed in a Twitter post during a three-day state visit of President Xi to the UAE last July.

“We have many areas of political and economic agreement and a solid base of projects in the energy, technology sectors,” he wrote.

More importantly, he added, there was: “A strong political will to start a greater phase of cooperation and integration.

“We have exemplary relations with China and a Chinese leadership that sees the UAE as [a] main strategic partner in the region.”

In real terms this means that around 60 per cent of China’s exports to the region enter through the UAE. Almost a quarter of those imports are for UAE consumers, while around 2,000 Chinese companies operate here.

In turn, China is the UAE’s second largest trading partner, with bilateral trade between the two countries expected to top US$58 billion this year.

It has been estimated that around 180,000 people of Chinese descent currently live in the UAE, most of them in Dubai.

Although President Xi’s visit to the UAE last year was the first by a Chinese leader in three decades of diplomatic relations, the links between the two countries have been well established.

Initial concerns about the influence China’s Maoists might have on sympathisers in some Arabian Gulf countries were dispelled by the mid 1980s, when the two countries formally recognised each other in an official communique in November 1984.

By then, trade was already growing rapidly, tripling in the first 10 years of the UAE’s existence, based initially on the supply of fertiliser to China and the role of Sharjah’s airport as a major stopover for Chinese airlines heading for Europe.

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - July 21, 2018: HH Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces (R) bids farewell to HE Xi Jinping, President of China (L), at the Presidential Airport. 

( Mohamed Al Hammadi / Crown Prince Court - Abu Dhabi )

With diplomatic relations established, Sheikh Zayed accepted an invitation to visit China in May 1990, the first by a leader of GCC country.

One result of that visit was the establishment of the Sheikh Zayed Centre for Arabic Language and Islamic Studies in the Chinese capital, Beijing. Opened in 1994, 11 out of 12 Chinese ambassadors to Arab countries have studied there.

Sheikh Zayed’s trip to China also saw included the obligatory walk and photo-opportunity on the Great Wall, a scene recreated by his son, Sheikh Mohamed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, 21 years later in December 2015.

That, in turn, set the scene for the return invitation to President Xi.

Writing in The National last year, Dr Sultan Al Jaber, the Minister of State and CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company Group, observed that the links between the UAE and China were far older than the 35 years of diplomatic relations.

They were rooted in the trade in pearls and porcelain that connected China to the Arab world as far back as the Ming Dynasty in the 7th century.

“UAE-China ties have developed into a strategic relationship that is based on mutual interest, common values and, above all, a belief that peace, stability and prosperity are interdependent,” the minister wrote. “China and the UAE both believe regional economic development is a vital strategic interest that underpins regional security.”

In real terms, this includes a $10 billion strategic co-investment fund, launched in 2015, to support growth in a diverse range of sectors.

A partnership deal between Abu Dhabi Ports and China’s largest shipping company, Cosco, will build new terminals at ports along the Belt and Road maritime routes.

As Dr Al Jaber wrote: “By continuing to reinforce our relations, culturally, politically and economically, we will achieve even greater benefits for our peoples, promote enduring advancement beyond our borders and underpin regional stability.”

During his visit last year, President Xi was presented with the Order of Zayed, the country’s highest civilian award. More than a dozen agreements between the two countries were also signed.

These ranged from energy cooperation to e-commerce and solar energy to agriculture. On the ground, the Chinese technology giant Alibaba has unveiled “Tech Town”, a US$600 million complex five times the size of the Pentagon near Jebel Ali, that, it is hoped, will eventually house 3,000 firms developing everything from mobile apps to artificial intelligence.

Since then, other high level visits have taken place, with a delegation headed by Chinese vice president Wang Qishan coming to Dubai last October and the appointment of Mubadala Investment Company chief executive, Khaldoon Khalifa Al Mubarak, as Presidential Special Envoy to China the same month.

Meanwhile, visa regulations between the two countries have also been relaxed so that UAE citizens no longer require a pre-entry visa, while Chinese passport holders can obtain a visa on arrival.

Those one million Chinese tourists who chose the Emirates as their travel destination last year are beginning to look like the tip of a very large iceberg.