We are witnessing a dynamic new phase in a relationship that dates back to the 7th century
Xi Jinping's state visit will herald a new dawn for the UAE-China relationship
“Here is the Tigris, and nothing bars the way between it and China.” Those words of Abu Jafar Al Mansour, the 8th century Abbasid caliph of Baghdad, conjure a world of extensive cultural and commercial exchanges between China and the Arab world. China first entered the Arab imagination through rihla, the travelogues of early pioneers who made the trek between the centres of these two great civilisations on the ancient Silk Road that connected West Asia to the East. Commercial routes became a vehicle for the transmission of culture, and by the 9th century, there were sweeping accounts of life in China in Arabic.
A mutual affection and respect that seemed to come naturally to both sides sustained the growing relationship. “Of all God’s creation”, one Arab traveller wrote, “the Chinese are among the most dexterous at engraving and manufacturing and at every kind of craft. Indeed, no one from any nation has the edge on them in this respect.” The Chinese, for their part, welcomed Arab travellers and built a mosque in Changan as early as the 7th century as a symbol of their respect for Islam.
After a millennium of upheaval, in which the West asserted its dominance and the East fell behind, an epochal shift is taking place. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to the UAE on Thursday will be a landmark moment in the revival of old ties. It will affirm the centrality of the UAE to China’s bold plan to regenerate the Silk Road that had once been the greatest trading route on earth. The UAE, already China’s largest trading partner in the region, is also the gateway that will connect the East with the West, integrating nations into an economic partnership that will eliminate distances, grant access to previously unreachable markets and bring vast benefits to ordinary people.
The full potential of this relationship will be discussed and debated at a special forum on Friday that will be attended by Sultan Al Mansoori, the UAE’s Minister of Economy and his Chinese counterpart, Zhong Shan. But economics is one aspect of this friendship. As in the past, culture will play a prominent role as the two nations rediscover each other and their ties enter a new phase.
Mr Xi will visit Louvre Abu Dhabi, which exemplifies the openness of this country. Meanwhile a week devoted to celebrating Chinese culture began in the UAE on Sunday with the launch of China Film Week. A dedicated service for Chinese visitors to the UAE will soon come into existence. And from here on a UAE-China week will be observed annually during the Chinese New Year. With the celebration of China and its culture, we are witnessing the beginning of a new phase in this dynamic partnership.