Foundations of a great friendship: Sheikh Zayed’s 1990 visit to China

In 1990 Sheikh Zayed became the first leader of a GCC country to visit China.

Sheikh Zayed, the Founding President, was shown around historic sites on his 1990 visit to China. Some of the attractions he was shown included the Forbidden City and the Great Wall of China. Chinese president Yang Shangkun stressed the value China put on the UAE’s development of friendly ties with his country. Photos: National Archive
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Founding President Sheikh Zayed’s visit to China in 1990 established a connection between the two countries that has only grown stronger with time.

It was more than a decade after the formation of the UAE that diplomatic relations with China were established, partly because of reservations in some Arabian Gulf nations about the influence on Maoist sympathisers in the region, in particular the Dhofar rebellion in Oman that ended only 14 years earlier.

While China was notified in December 1971 of the existence of the UAE, relations with the People’s Republic were only formally recognised in November 1984 – in a joint communique announcing relations at ambassadorial level.

By then, trade between the two countries was already well established, with exports from China tripling in the first 10 years of the UAE’s existence, while the UAE became an important supplier of fertiliser to China and Sharjah became a key stopover for Chinese airlines flying to Europe.

A series of delegations from both countries followed, starting in November 1984 – just 22 days after diplomatic relations – with a visit to Abu Dhabi by Wu Xueqian, China’s foreign minister.

Five years later, the highest level visit to date took place with vice president Tian Jiyun arriving in Abu Dhabi.

It was reported that the vice president brought with him an official invitation for Sheikh Zayed to visit China. Seven months later, in December 1989, the Chinese president, Yang Shangkun paid a one-day visit to the UAE as part of a trip to the Middle East.

The scene was set for Sheikh Zayed to fly to Beijing. In May 1990, he departed for a five-day official visit to China, the first by a GCC leader.

At a banquet in Sheikh Zayed’s honour on May 8, president Yang stressed the value China put on the UAE’s development of “friendly ties with China”, and noted that “the countries hold identical or similar stands on major international issues”.

Sheikh Zayed’s visit included not only trips to historic sites such as the Forbidden City and the Great Wall of China, but also a promise by the UAE President to establish an Arab and Islamic studies centre in Beijing.

The UAE Centre for the Study of Islamic Culture and the Teaching of the Arabic Language opened in 1994 and was renamed the Sheikh Zayed Centre for Arabic Language and Islamic Studies during a visit by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, in 2012.

In the years since Sheikh Zayed’s visit to China, more than 700 students have been awarded degrees at the centre.

At the time of Sheikh Mohammed’s visit three years ago, 11 out of 12 of China’s ambassadors to Arab countries had studied at the centre.

On the second day of his 2012 visit, Sheikh Mohammed, also Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, planted a tree in the grounds of the centre as symbol of friendship between the people of the UAE and China.

Three years later, that tree continues to grow and bloom.