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UAE and China, how comprehensive strategic relations are built

By Khaled bin Dhai | | Updated: 2018-07-20 17:22
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Khaled bin Dhai, managing director of Al-Ain News [Photo by:]

The relationship binding the UAE and China is a copybook example of how comprehensive strategic relations between countries can be built. The Emirati leadership, through its insight and ability in developing a network of relationships, has been successful in realizing the country's strategic interests through cooperation with a pivotal state to the benefit of the people of the UAE.

China and the UAE

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the UAE on July 19, 2018, is the culmination of a strategic relationship going back years. It was the first visit by an incumbent Chinese president to a Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) member state and President Xi’s first visit overseas since his reelection. It is a relationship built on political, economic, social, cultural and tourist cooperation based on solid grounds of trust and mutual respect. Most importantly, this relationship has directly fed the Emirati people's interests, based on positive action not just words.

It all started with a telegram sent by Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan to the then-Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, informing him of the establishment of the United Arab Emirates. This paved the way for comprehensive strategic relations with China. The Chinese premier replied by telegram in which he formally recognized the UAE.

Mutual relations were further strengthened when diplomatic ties between the two countries were established in November 1984. The UAE embassy in China was opened in Beijing in 1985, a Chinese consulate was opened in Dubai in 1988 and two UAE consulates were opened in Hong Kong and Shanghai. Former Chinese president Yang Shangkun's visit to the UAE in December 1989 was the first-ever to the UAE and was followed by Sheikh Zayed’s visit to China in May 1990.

During his visit to China, the founding father of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed, presented a roadmap for the development of a long-term strategic relationship between the two countries. Taking such a step showed the UAE’s genius for leadership and the role an individual can play in making history. Sheikh Zayed soon realized that relations with the rising state of China had to rely on deepening contact in all fields not confined to the economy alone. Therefore he took the initiative to inaugurate the Sheikh Zayed Centre for Arabic Language and Arabic and Islamic Studies at the Beijing Foreign Studies University.

Sheikh Zayed's vision for deeper public diplomacy relations with China was not understood by many at the beginning, yet today both the UAE and China are harvesting its fruits. Nearly 1,000 students have graduated from the Sheikh Zayed Centre, building a bridge between China and the Arab world. The same centre was re-inaugurated by Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed in 2012 following renovation.

Moreover, the centre's establishment led to greater cultural and educational cooperation between the UAE and China, a cooperation considered unique in China's relations with Arab states. In return, a school for teaching the Chinese language was inaugurated in Abu Dhabi in 2010 and a Confucius Institute was inaugurated in Dubai University, being the first of its kind in the Gulf region. In addition, the Chinese language was taught in 11 schools, the fruit of which was the Emirati fluent Chinese-speaking students studying at Hamdan bin Zayed School in Abu Dhabi, who were present during the UAE-China week.

Like all cultural diplomacy initiatives, building lasting cultural relationships takes years. China was the guest of honor at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair and the UAE became a major destination for Chinese writers and intellectuals eager to better understand and open dialogue with the Arab world.

In fact, the importance of cultural relations between the UAE and China in building comprehensive strategic ties between the two countries has been made clear during the UAE-China week in Manarat Al Saadiyat on July 17th –25th, coinciding with the Chinese president's visit to the UAE.

Through the founding father's insight, the UAE has been transformed into a hub for Chinese-Arab cultural exchange. Several Chinese centers have been established in the UAE, thus serving not only as China's economic bridge to the Arab world, but as a cultural one as well.

Exchange visits have also strengthened a unique political relationship, as manifested in the visits to China of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid al Maktoum, the vice-president and ruler of Dubai in 2008, and Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al Nahyan, the Abu Dhabi crown prince and deputy chief of the Armed Forces, in 2002, 2012 and 2015. Highlighting the strength of Chinese-UAE relations, President Xi Jinping said, "the UAE is a friendly country and shares our dream and so the UAE has become a vital bridge between China and the Arab states."

Economically, the relations between the UAE and China are unique. China is considered the UAE's largest economic partner with $53.3 billion annually in trade exchange, which increased by an additional $8 billion in two years, totaling $245 billion between 2011 and 2017. Between 2011 and 2017 35 mutual trade cooperation agreements were signed during 120 visits exchanged by officials from the two countries.

Seventy percent of China’s exports to the Gulf, Africa and East Asia go through the UAE, being China's trade gateway to the Middle East and Africa. Nearly 300,000 Chinese citizens, 4000 Chinese companies, 300 trade agencies, 5,000 trademarks and 15 corporations are operating on the Emirati stock markets, and 817 Chinese investors are active on the Abu Dhabi and Dubai stock markets, with a turnover of UAE 900 million dirhams. This in addition to large Chinese investments in the UAE.

In view of China’s new “Silk Road” initiative, such distinguished relations have prompted China to view the UAE as a strategic partner in an international project.

The UAE has become a significant pivot in China's maritime "Silk Road" initiative, something that further strengthens the UAE's location and its unique position on the world map and brings greater economic and development gains to the Emirati people.

In this initiative, the DP (Dubai Ports) World's London Gateway port is playing a key role in the last phase of the Silk Road railway and raising the capacity of Gabal Ali ports to 22 million containers. In addition, the UAE is partaking in the Chinese infrastructure of this major project.

The UAE is also playing a major role in the construction of the Silk Road, which will consolidate its standing as an international centre for trade and investment for decades to come.

In the area of tourism over a million Chinese tourists flock to the UAE every year aboard 75 flights every week. This number is likely to increase to 1.5 million when the entry visas to both countries are cancelled.

Political and economic cooperation, the building of good personal relations over time and the development of tourism, education and the easing of visa restrictions, all pillars of successful political and cultural diplomacy, attest to the value and importance of the cornerstone established by the Founding Father all those years ago and developed with wisdom and insight by his successors.

The article was first published on al-Ain news website. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily and

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