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Sun 6 Mar 2011 11:32 AM

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The dragon in the desert

From shops to schools, China's ties with the Arab world are deepening

The dragon in the desert
Non-oil trade between the UAE and China reached around AED42.6bn in the first ten months of 2010

A behemoth dragon-shaped shopping mall in the desert near Dubai has become a symbol of the deepening links between East Asia and the Middle East.

Dragon Mart - 3,950 wholesale and retail shops, stretching 1.2 km, or about three-quarters of a mile, in a sinuous strip alongside a desert highway - is China's trade outpost in the Gulf, selling everything from marble tiles and artificial hair extensions to dried fish and Mickey Mouse telephones.

"I come here with my wife and four children every second week, it's much cheaper and it is a great shopping experience," Souhail Al Zaabi, a policeman from Ras Al Khaimah, said recently. "Today, we are buying a chandelier for our majlis," he added, referring to the traditional Arab sitting room, "not too big, but like crystals it must look".

Farther along the mall, Chinese massage machines were selling briskly.

"I have already bought three tools," said Ali Abdulkader, a 65-year-old customer, also from Ras Al Khaimah, shopping at a Body Care health and fitness outlet. "They are good for my body. I have a massage belt, a massage hammer, and a massage chair installed in my car. It's cheap stuff, cheap."

The Elite Sauna Belt, to reduce fat and decrease joint stiffness, costs AED50, or about $13.50, including a remote control. A Magic Hand massage hammer, usually priced at AED150, was on sale for AED45. Similar European models cost four times as much.

Trolleys loaded with children's bicycles and fluorescent lights were parked at the cashier desk of the Suntour restaurant, where the smell of stir fried vegetables and black bean sauce filled the air.

If it weren't for the veiled women and men in Arab garb, this could be a corridor in any of China's factory cities, crammed with merchandise and the cacophony of electric toys.

Inaugurated in 2004, Dragon Mart, a retail property division of the Dubai government's investment vehicle Dubai World, is one of the largest trading centres for Chinese products in the world outside China.

According to the Federal Customs Authority of the UAE, non-oil trade between the Emirates and China reached around AED42.6bn in the first ten months of 2010, up 3.4 percent from the same period in 2009.

There are almost 200,000 Chinese residents and more than 3,000 companies in the emirates, according to the Chinese Consulate. That compares with an estimated total population in the Emirates of about five million.

"The Chinese economy is resource hungry, and there is a need to access Gulf markets," said Mark McFarland, emerging markets economist at Emirates NBD in Dubai, who had previously worked in Hong Kong. "The commerce with China is a symbol of its rise as an economic power."

"China has been at the forefront of free-trade agreements with the UAE, which is of great benefit to both countries," he said. "Dubai is becoming a regional hub for a lot of Chinese operations that are setting up in the region, but also develop businesses in Africa."

The Dragon is a Chinese symbol of power and strength, and the mall aptly symbolises the growing strength of China's presence in the emirates, where a growing number of Chinese businesses have set up operations and store signs in Chinese intermingle with those in Arabic.

Some Emiratis have chosen to send their children to a Chinese school, believing that knowledge of both Arabic and Chinese will be a key to success in the coming decades.

Hamid Kazim, an Emirati business consultant, has sent four of his five children to a Chinese school in Dubai, where they sit on bright green and yellow stools - most likely bought at Dragon Mart - alongside Chinese, Malay and Brazilian children.

"I am an admirer of China. It's quite important for children to be skilled in different areas," Kazim said.

Chinese residents, meanwhile, are picking up Arabic. "The Chinese ambassador and the Chinese consul both speak very well Arabic," said Hamdan Mohamed, president of the Arab Business Club in Dubai.

"We have a big Chinese community in the UAE... To enter this community you have to speak their language."

A natural global hub for long-distance flights between Asia, Europe and Africa, "Dubai is a great location which reflects this," McFarland of Emirates NBD said.

"A lot of the companies here are construction and manufacturing-oriented. You can envision a big increase in trade between the UAE and China."

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