BEIJING // It has been more than two decades since Sheikh Zayed, the founding President, visited China and pledged to fund the opening of an Arabic and Islamic studies centre there.
Yesterday the centre was renamed in his honour after a multimillion-dollar refurbishment paid for by the Court of the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed.
Sheikh Mohammed attended the renewal ceremony on the second day of his three-day trip and planted a tree to symbolise friendship between the peoples of the UAE and China.
What is now the Sheikh Zayed Centre for Arabic Language and Islamic Studies opened at Beijing Foreign Studies University in 1994, four years after Sheikh Zayed's visit.
"The facilities are totally new. It's beautiful," said Xue Qingguo, a professor and vice dean in the Arabic department at the university.
"The conditions for learning, for research, have been improved greatly and the students, they've decided these are first-class buildings, a first-class centre, so they must be first-class students."
On visit to China in 2009, Sheikh Mohammed pledged to fund the refurbishment, which cost US$2.8 million (Dh10.2m).
The Foreign Minister, Sheikh Abdullah, announced a $1m donation to the centre in 2007 on behalf of the President, Sheikh Khalifa.
Yesterday it was announced that Sheikh Mohammed was making an additional $1.12m donation to fund research and teaching there.
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Mr Xue said the connection between the department and the UAE was very close. He helped to translate into Chinese the book My Vision by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and the Ruler of Dubai.
More than 650 students have received bachelor's, master's or doctoral degrees from the university's Arabic department, and many have taken jobs in the Arab world. Of China's 12 ambassadors to Arab countries, 11 are graduates of the department.
Sheikh Zayed's decision to fund the original building showed "the friendship between us", said Omar Al Bitar, the UAE Ambassador to China.
"The centre has acted as a bridge of understanding between our two civilisations and cultures," Mr Al Bitar said.
Emirati and Arabic culture was much in evidence at yesterday's ceremony, with a troupe of dancers in kanduras giving a traditional performance.
Chinese students wore Gulf dress when they sang and danced in the main auditorium for dignitaries, among them ambassadors from other Arab countries.
The students said their new facilities made for a much better learning experience.
"It's very good and compared to the other buildings in our school it's really, really modern," said Jin Zhengfai, 20, a third-year student.
He described the main auditorium as "decorated very much like an Arabic building" and said the library facilities were much improved.
"We feel very comfortable when we are studying now," said Ding Mengying, 20, another third-year student.
Interest in Arabic and other foreign languages has increased significantly in China, and the number of universities offering courses has risen from seven a decade ago to more than two dozen.
Economic ties between the two countries have also strengthened. Trade has grown by more than a third every year for the past decade, and reached about $35 billion last year.
And tourist visits from China have grown greatly since the UAE was granted "preferred destination status" by the Chinese authorities in 2009, cutting red tape for travellers and travel agents.
Sheikh Mohammed's visit includes meetings with the prime minister, Wen Jiabao, the National People's Congress chairman Wu Bangguo and the vice president, Xi Jinping, who is expected to take over as president next year.