The city of Yiwu in China, a magnet for thousands of Muslim traders from the Middle East, has become an economic and cultural bridge between the Asian economic giant and the Arab world. David Eimer reports.
Two thousand years ago, China was linked to the Arab world by the camel caravans that carried silk and spices from the ancient city of Xi'an along the fabled Silk Road. Now, their modern-day equivalents are the lorries loaded with shipping containers that line the road out of Yiwu. Last year, more than 500,000 shipping containers left this city in south-east China for the nearby port of Ningbo. And with 20 per cent of them bound for Dubai alone, the majority end their journey in the Middle East and its surrounding countries.
Since 2001, Yiwu has emerged as the centre of a new Silk Road that is binding the economies of China and the Arab world ever closer. The presence of the world's biggest market for small commodities has combined with the shift in the Muslim world's relationship with the US and Europe post 9/11, to make Yiwu as well-known a name to Middle Eastern traders as Xi'an once was. "Yiwu is famous among business people," says Awar Agreeb. Originally from Aden in Yemen, Agreeb first came to China in 2001 to study and now works as a translator and fixer for Arab traders visiting Yiwu. "My customers are from all over the Middle East and North Africa: Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Morocco. I think Yiwu is popular with Arabs because the prices are low and so they can make a profit."
With an estimated 200,000 Arab traders passing through Yiwu each year, along with many others from Pakistan, India, central Asia and Africa, parts of the city have become synonymous with both Arabs and Muslims. In the Shang Mao Qu district, Egyptian and Iraqi restaurants with menus in Arabic sit alongside those run by Chinese Muslims. The nearby cafes bustle at night, with people smoking shishas, drinking mint tea and playing backgammon, while Al-Jazeera plays in the background. "It reminds me of Aqaba," says one visiting Jordanian.
On Fridays, the streets outside Yiwu's main mosque further reinforce the impression that it has one foot in the Middle East. Men from the Gulf states wearing pristine dishdashas join Pakistanis dressed in shalwar kemeez and North Africans in jeans to eat kebabs and flatbread before prayers. "When I first came to Yiwu in 2002, there were only about 200 foreigners who came to the mosque. Now, we get around 4,000 on Fridays. Most are Arabs, but we get a lot from Pakistan and Afghanistan, too," says Mohammed Abdullah, the Chinese imam at the mosque.
While the mosques are packed on Fridays, it is commerce that brings most people to Yiwu, and its commercial hub is the Futian Market. Stretching for almost four kilometres and housing 62,000 stalls selling 1.7 million types of goods, Futian is like a giant supermarket for small commodities. Everything from clothes and cosmetics, to electrical appliances, along with the batteries and plugs needed to power them, and jewellery, toys and watches are available here at bargain prices.
Unlike the markets in other commercial hubs in China, such as Guangzhou in the south, Futian doesn't specialise in a single product. Instead, it's possible to find any conceivable commodity in its cavernous corridors spread between several buildings in the city. It's that convenience that has made it a byword for traders from the Arab region. "Futian has everything under one roof and all the factories from around China have agents in the market," says Foad Farajyan, an Iranian who buys air-conditioning units in Futian to sell in Iran and Iraq.
Although some traders hire translators, most rely on sign language to communicate and calculators to bargain. Profit margins seem small, until you take into account that business in Futian is done in bulk. "I can buy a watch here for 25 yuan (Dh13.5) and I'll sell it in Cairo for 27 yuan. But I'll fill up half a shipping container with watches and use the other half for jewellery," says Mahamoud Adil, 32, an Egyptian on his seventh trip to Yiwu.
Located in Zhejiang Province, a four-hour drive south of Shanghai and a small city by Chinese standards, with a population of two million, Yiwu makes an unlikely boomtown. Before 2001, it was little known in China, let alone the Middle East. But then the September 11 attacks happened, and three months later to the day, China joined the World Trade Organisation. The effects of the two events were immense. China threw open its doors to traders from anywhere on the planet, just as the US and Europe were slamming theirs shut to people from the Muslim world. "After September 11, a lot of Arabs who invested in Europe and the USA realised that they would have to choose different countries to invest in. So they started to look at Asia and especially China," says Ye Ping, a Chinese Muslim who formerly published a newspaper in Yiwu for the Muslim community.
With visas for the US and Europe much harder to attain and China's factories going into overdrive churning out low-cost goods, China quickly became the number-one option for Muslim businessmen. "Where else can I do business? America?" says Khalil Ali, a trader from Baghdad who has been coming to Yiwu for four years. "You can get a visa for China in a day." That ease of access has resulted in a profound change in the way Arabs and Muslims regard China. "I think the relationship between the Arab world and China is much better now than the relationship between the Middle East and Europe and the US," says Foad Farajyan. "In Europe, people think Arabs, Iranians, Pakistanis are terrorists. Here, no one cares about that. The Chinese just think about business. They don't care about politics or nationality. I've never had a discussion with a Chinese person about politics."
China is keen to put trade above ideology when it comes to the Middle East, not least because it is so oil-thirsty. Exports to the 22 countries of the Arab League reached US$62billion (Dh228bn) last year, a huge jump from 2001's total of $7billion. Dubai alone imported $2billion worth of goods from Yiwu in 2008, almost a third of Yiwu's GDP of $7.2billion, according to figures from the local government. By 2010, Beijing hopes exports to the Middle East will reach $100billion.
In reviving its commercial links with the Arab world, China has a historical advantage over other nations too. Although the heyday of the Silk Road was well over a 1,000 years ago, the trade routes that stretched across India and Central Asia to the Middle East date back 3,000 years. And they carried more than just mere goods. Cultural and religious ideas crossed the borders too; some of China's estimated 40 million Muslims are descended from the Arab traders who travelled the Silk Road.
For Ye Ping, Yiwu is now fulfilling the same function that the camel caravans once did. "Yiwu is helping reconnect China with the Middle East. The city has become an economic and cultural bridge between China and the Arab world. When I went to Iran for the first time, around per cent of the products I saw were made in China. That made me feel very proud," she says. Yiwu's local government facilitates that trade by making it easier for foreigners to get residents' visas and to register companies than it is in other Chinese cities. Equally important is the willingness of the Chinese to give credit. "The first time the customer buys he pays upfront, but the second time they don't have to. From then on, we do everything on trust. I don't even ask to see a passport," says Zhu Shun, whose family runs a shop in Futian Market selling plugs made in factories in nearby Hangzhou and Wenzhou.
Increasing numbers of Arabs are now choosing to move to Yiwu permanently. No precise figures are available, but several thousand live here, running trading and cargo companies, or restaurants. Most cite the welcoming attitude of the locals and the stable nature of Chinese society, as well as the lack of prejudice towards Muslims, as the reasons to make Yiwu home. "I've been here for four years and I've decided not to go back to Iraq. The life here is safe and the people are peaceful," says Aram Qader from Sulaimanya in Northern Iraq. "Now, I plan to marry a Chinese woman."