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Ma Chengming holding a basket of chilies. Photo by Clifford Coonan
Ma Chengming holding a basket of chilies. Photo by Clifford Coonan

China-Arab State Expo mirrors Silk Road bilateral trade of old

The China-Arab State Expo in Yinchuan last week reveals trade and cultural links between the world's second-largest economy and the Middle East are growing ever stronger. And with a foundation of the old Silk Road era to build on, perhaps that is no surprise.

Last week, at the China-Arab State Expo, a platform for promoting trade between China and the Muslim world, Ma Chengming was holding up a jar of halal hot and spicy beef.

"Chili! We sell chili," said Ms Ma, a sales supervisor at the Mingxia Sha Hu Muslim Food Company, as visitors filed in to the expo in the north-western Chinese city of Yinchuan.

"We also specialise in goji berries. It's difficult to grow and takes many years of research to come up with this way of selling it. We mostly sell to local customers, as Chinese people around here like to eat spicy food but we are very keen to sell to Arab customers, which is why we have a big stand at this expo," she said.

Visitors from all over the Arab world came to Yinchuan for the expo, which featured various business forums, trade fairs and exhibitions.

Yinchuan is the capital city of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, which is home to more than 10 per cent of China's 20 million Muslims.

The city has a large Muslim population - Hui Muslims make up 24 per cent of the city's population - and the region was an important staging post on the ancient Silk Road. City authorities are keen to develop it as an exchange point between Chinese and Arab cultures.

Trade between China and Arab countries increased 14 per cent year-on-year to a record high of US$222.4 billion last year.

At the same time, China's exports to Arab countries totalled $91.3bn, while imports amounted to $131.1bn.

Promotional activities at the expo were focused on agriculture, energy, trade, art and technical and financial cooperation.

The guest of honour was Kuwait, with a youth football match featuring players from Kuwait and China held at the expo.

Liu Hui, the chairwoman of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, said the Hui people of Ningxia shared many similarities with the Arab people in terms of culture, religion and customs.

Ningxia should use the expo to help with the policy of opening up the west of China, she said.

The event originated from the China-Arab states economic and trade forum, which has been held every year since 2010, and is part of Yinchuan's focus on building trade links with the Arab world.

"Ningxia is an important stop on the Silk Road, where the Chinese and Arab civilisations have traditionally interacted on each other, and the Hui people in Ningxia share many similarities in terms of culture, religion and customs with the Arab people," said Ms Liu.

"Therefore, Ningxia has distinct geographical and cultural advantages for promoting friendly cooperation between China and the Arab countries."

Last year, the state council approved a plan to construct a vast inland economic zone in Ningxia and the skyline is filled with cranes building the Yinchuan Yuehai Bay CBD, a vast project that has as its centrepoint a China and Arab Axis, which is lined with the flags of UAE states and other Arab countries.

China's top economic planning body, the national development and reform commission, recently set up an inter-ministerial meeting mechanism to speed up development of the Ningxia inland opening-up pilot economic zone.

The project was approved last year and is aimed at enhancing cooperation between China and the Arab world. It is also a prototype for a new pattern for opening of inland areas.

The meetings will coordinate efforts to build the pilot zone and will help Ningxia in areas of policy implementation and institutional innovation, and strengthen information exchange among government bodies involved, a statement ran.

The city is also keen to sell itself as a destination for Muslim tourists.

"Featuring the Muslim culture element, Ningxia is now trying to attract more and more attentions from Muslim tourists around the world," Yang Liu, the director of the Ningxia tourism bureau, told local media.

At the World Muslim Tour Operators Conference 2013 in Yinchuan, the capital city of Ningxia, tourism contracts with a total value of 3bn yuan (Dh1.8bn) were signed between the Chinese tour operators and their counterparts from more than 20 countries and regions.

Last week, authorities in Yinchuan announced a "Silk Road in the Sky" linking eastern and western Asia, aimed at cutting the travelling times between China and the UAE and providing new development opportunities for Arabian countries.

The UAE and China announced in Yinchuan that China would grant third, fourth and fifth freedom airline traffic rights between Yinchuan Hedong International Airport and destinations in the UAE and will allow Emirates Airlines to operate four Dubai-Yinchuan-Zhengzhou flights every week.

"Granting freedom traffic rights and approving new routes pave the way for operating new routes linking Yinchuan with other Arabian countries and Muslim regions. The Silk Road in the Sky is becoming a reality," said a spokesperson for the local department of commerce.

The new service builds on the existing Yinchuan-Kunming-Dubai scheduled passenger and cargo flights, which were launched two years ago and were the first international flights to and from Ningxia.

This took place one year after the inaugural Arab States Expo was held in Ningxia. Taking place on the eve of the convening of the 2013 expo, China's granting of the fifth freedom traffic rights between Yinchuan Hedong International Airport and the UAE means that Ningxia is on track to become a major trans-shipment port between China and the Mideast.

The move also means that after flying from Dubai to Yinchuan and loading and unloading passengers and cargo, aircraft from Emirates Airlines can fly on to other countries.

As the promoters says, the Silk Road in the Sky serves as a new bridge between China and the Arab States, albeit it one built on ancient foundations.


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