The Great Wall and the Great Hall: Sheikh Zayed's landmark 1990 visit to China

The trip visit was part of a 17-day tour of Asia and showed the UAE emerging onto the world stage

CHINA - 1990: Photographs from the Al Ittihad archive of HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan bin Zayed Al Nahyan President of the United Arab Emirates during an official visit to China in 1990. 

(Al Ittihad)

The year was 1990. The world was grappling with the protracted break-up of the Soviet Union, all roads led to Italy for the World Cup, and in the UAE, Sheikh Zayed would embark on a historic trip that accelerated the country’s emergence on to the world stage.

On May 7, the Founding Father flew out of Abu Dhabi with a delegation including Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, now Vice President and Ruler of Dubai.

In the landmark, 17-day trip, Sheikh Zayed would first visit China and then move on to Japan and Indonesia.

“Despite the far distance between our countries, we share several goals and interests, mainly the need to develop our countries and achieve progress and prosperity for our peoples,” Sheikh Zayed said at the start of the Chinese visit.

“We sincerely hope our visit to China will help to boost our ties in all fields.”

Formal relations between the two countries had been only established a few years earlier and while trade had increased, Sheikh Zayed’s visit sought to establish a new era of co-operation between the UAE and China.

“The visit to Beijing, the first stop of his three-nation tour, was powerful evidence of Sheikh Zayed’s recognition of the importance of building close political and economic ties with a country that was then rapidly emerging as a global power,” said Peter Hellyer, a writer and historian who accompanied the delegation for part of the trip.

“Ties with Japan were long-standing, pre-dating the formation of the UAE Federation in 1971, but diplomatic relations with China had only been established in 1984 and the Chinese community in the emirates was still then very small.”

Arriving in Beijing, Sheikh Zayed was met by Chinese president, Yang Shangkun, on May 8 at the Great Hall of the People on the edge of Tiananmen Square.

Sheikh Zayed reviewed a guard of honourwhile Mr Yang paid tribute to his counterpart's "eye-catching" achievements in the Middle East and  also hosted a banquet later at the Great Hall in the UAE Ruler's honour.

CHINA - 1990: Photographs from the Al Ittihad archive of HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan bin Zayed Al Nahyan President of the United Arab Emirates during an official visit to China in 1990. 

(Al Ittihad)

This was not a leisure trip and a full diary of events was scheduled daily.

The next day, Sheikh Zayed held talks with Chinese prime minister Li Peng, met the secretary general of the Chinese Communist Party, Jiang Zemin, and hosted Arab ambassadors who were accredited to China.

He also presented a gift of a dagger in a beautiful wooden box to Mr Li.

By May 10, Sheikh Zayed was at the Great Wall of China and a famous photograph shows him with the global landmark in the background.

His Asian trip was extensively covered in the UAE newspapers of the time, copies of which are now kept in the National Archives.


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At the time, foreign news dominated the agenda, with stories of turmoil in Gaza, strife in Pakistan and trouble in Eastern Europe.

But these sit beside local stories of new passenger buses for Dubai, municipality meetings and improvements to the phone network.

These reports reflect a country on the move, and leading this was Sheikh Zayed. Not an issue went by without some report of the President holding a meeting or issuing a directive.

Gulf News, Khaleej Times and the discontinued Emirates News devoted many pages to the China visit.

Front-page reports documented Sheikh Zayed’s every move: signing books, greeting officials, meeting Chinese people and visiting local attractions. And forget text-heavy pages – comprehensive photo galleries of everything he did accompanied the words.

CHINA. Undated photograph of HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Founding President of the United Arab Emirates during a visit to China. The image was supplied to the National Archive by the Embassy of The People's Republic of China to the UAE.

(National Archive) *** Local Caption ***  1990 HH Sheikh Zayed at Great Wall.JPG

On May 11, Sheikh Zayed left for Shanghai where he attended a banquet hosted by the city's mayor. His delegation took a river cruise to get a sense of the blistering pace of change in what is now the world's most populous city.

By that Sunday, Sheikh Zayed would be in Japan before going on to Indonesia. But the Chinese trip had left its mark.

He was the first GCC leader to visit China, from a country not even 20 years old. It would be followed a month later by the UAE’s first and, to date, only appearance at a World Cup, and these moments marked a UAE that was striding confidently on to the world stage.

Sheikh Zayed promised to establish an Arab and Islamic studies centre in Beijing.

The centre opened in 1994 and was renamed the Sheikh Zayed Centre for Arabic Language and Islamic Studies during a 2012 visit by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.

Today, about 200,000 Chinese people call the UAE home and thousands of Chinese companies operate here. Strong cultural and trade links have been established.

This has been the greatest legacy of that 1990 trip and represents the landscape that awaits Chinese President Xi Jinping when he arrives here on Thursday.

“Sheikh Zayed’s historic state visit to China in 1990 represented a major step in the early development of the UAE’s diplomatic outreach to East Asia,” Hellyer said. “His visit, which also included trips to Japan and Indonesia, was the first of its kind.

“I was fortunate enough to accompany Sheikh Zayed on part of this important tour. Looking back, the trip to China laid the firm foundations of what has become a key relationship today.”