As one of the first Gulf Arab states to establish diplomatic relations with Beijing, the United Arab Emirates has enjoyed friendly relations with the People’s Republic of China since 1984. Already a commercial hub in the region, Dubai has become the regional base of the Chinese state. capital-owned companies after the first Gulf War. Since the launch of the “Going-Out” strategy in 1999 to promote Chinese investment abroad, some 4,000 Chinese companies have established themselves in the United Arab Emirates, fueling an economic boom in the region. Dragon Mart, China’s largest commodity market outside of China, opened in 2007. Home to more than 6,000 wholesale and retail stores and kiosks, Dragon Mart has earned nearly $10 billion in business transactions in 2015 alone. Spurred on by the huge success of Dragon Mart, investors have replicated Chinese shopping malls in nearby cities and surrounding countries and expanded China-UAE economic ties from commodity trading to the real estate, healthcare, education, research, media and entertainment.
Under the Belt and Road Initiative, China-UAE exchanges have further diversified. In July 2018, the two partners transformed the bilateral relationship into a comprehensive strategic partnership. By 2019, China had become the UAE’s largest non-oil trading partner and Dubai’s fourth-largest source of tourists. Despite the unprecedented challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, China still ranked as the UAE’s largest trading partner in 2021.
Dubai is arguably China’s new entrepot in the Middle East and Africa. With the lowering of barriers to foreign direct investment and the easing of entry requirements for Chinese passport holders over the past decade, the city has become a facilitating node where various flows from China converge – goods, capital and people, both licit and illicit. According to former employees of Chinese state-owned companies and Chinese diplomats, the number of Chinese residents in the UAE has increased from some 2,000 in the early 1990s to nearly 300,000 in 2018, with 270,000 concentrated in Dubai. The majority have been part of the fourth wave of Chinese migration to the region since 2000. Despite its relatively short history and small size compared to South Asian and Arab expatriate communities, the Chinese presence in public spaces and clubs exclusive social benefits of the UAE is no longer negligible.
The Chinese expatriate community in Dubai, and more broadly in the UAE, is made up of four main groups: employees of Chinese state-owned companies (eg Sinopec) and large private companies (eg Huawei) and their dependents. charge ; independent contractors and their employees and dependents; Chinese-speaking personnel in the service sector; and highly qualified professionals employed by multinational companies and the educational and research institutions of the United Arab Emirates. Dubai’s continued efforts to attract the global creative class have shaped the demographic composition of the Chinese expat community. The emirate’s advanced infrastructure, family-friendly social and cultural environment and, most importantly, growing educational resources have encouraged Chinese expats to bring their families to the city. In recent years, China’s population has shifted from being mostly single people or married couples without children to having more families with school-aged children. This improvement in the socio-economic status of Chinese expatriates and the relaxation of visa policies for Chinese passport holders reflect the strengthening of bilateral relations between China and the United Arab Emirates.
Changing demographics and the increasing professional diversity of Chinese expatriates have accelerated the institutionalization of the Chinese expatriate community. Key community institutions include provincial, regional and city associations; pan-Chinese professional associations; arts, sports and recreation organizations; religious organizations; Chinese language media; and, more recently, a government-funded national Chinese school – Chinese School Dubai. These organizations have been instrumental in facilitating transnational flows, supporting immigrant adaptation, and assisting the work of China’s United Front government agency in its efforts to unite Chinese scholars, religious organizations, professional associations , enterprises and individuals in the promotion of China. cultural heritage and political identity. More importantly, these organizations helped consolidate overlapping social networks and provided platforms for community outreach and charitable activities. During the coronavirus pandemic, various voluntary organizations have collaborated with Chinese diplomatic missions and charities based in the United Arab Emirates to provide medical and relief aid locally and regionally. Through community outreach activities, Chinese expatriates in the UAE have helped foster “people-to-people” exchanges, a key driver of many projects under the Belt and Road Initiative. In addition, Chinese School Dubai seeks to promote educational and cultural exchanges between China and the United Arab Emirates and attract more Chinese expatriate families to settle in Dubai. The strong growth in student enrollment at the school since it opened in September 2020 suggests that the Chinese expatriate community has remained resilient despite the challenges triggered by the pandemic.
The economic downturn since 2017 and the slump in the global economy during the pandemic have nonetheless posed complex challenges for the Chinese expatriate community in the UAE. Although Dubai remains one of the safest places in the world, there have been increasing reports of robberies, assaults, kidnappings and murders involving Chinese people, either as perpetrators or victims. The safety of people and property is of particular concern in Dubai International City and the Dragon Mart area, where the Chinese population and Chinese-owned businesses are concentrated.
Additionally, Dubai’s status as a major transnational commercial center and the need to ensure its sustained economic growth in a volatile region have amplified the city’s vulnerability to global illicit flows. Dodgy businesses and individuals have taken refuge in Dubai. Policy loopholes and a profit-driven free market economy have left Dubai vulnerable to money laundering and cybercrime.
The trickiest challenge is the unprecedented influx of transnational online gambling operations from Southeast Asia to Dubai during the coronavirus pandemic. This is largely due to the fact that China has used its geopolitical influence to suppress the illegal betting and gambling industry in Southeast Asia. Reports from Radio Free Asia have revealed that under the guise of online gaming, e-commerce or software development companies, these hugely profitable businesses have managed to register legally in Dubai, often under the umbrella of prominent Emirati sponsors. Since mid-2020, these transnational cybercrime networks have brought more than 100,000 Chinese recruits on tourist visas to Dubai from Cambodia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Vietnam and mainland China to operate gambling and offshore gambling. These nouveau riche flooded the local market with cash payments for luxuries and prime real estate. They are also responsible for major price hikes in grocery stores, hair salons, restaurants and apartment rentals. Operating in the utmost secrecy and using suspicious recruitment methods, these companies have slipped under the radar of Chinese diplomatic missions in the UAE and Emirati authorities. Strict security measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus have further exacerbated the humanitarian crisis associated with these underground operations.
Ironically, the timely arrival of these Chinese online gambling operations not only injected substantial cash flow into the Dubai property market, but also brought back to life many Chinese-owned small businesses that were left behind. shreds as a result of the pandemic. Shortly after Dubai denied reports that it had started issuing gambling licenses, China’s vice consul general in Dubai met with the chief and other officials of the Dubai Police, expressing the hope that the two sides “strengthen cooperation in policing and law enforcement”. protect the legitimate rights and interests of overseas Chinese and jointly maintain Dubai’s public safety and international reputation. Under pressure from Chinese and Emirati authorities and due to higher operational costs in Dubai, around a third of offshore gambling companies have either moved to Eastern Europe or Southeast Asia. Yet the remaining operations continue to threaten the security of the Chinese expatriate community as a whole.
Technological progress has blurred the boundaries between the legitimate and the illicit. The UAE’s policy on cryptocurrencies poses another challenge to the Chinese authority which has categorically banned any transactions associated with bitcoin and the like. Dubai and the United Arab Emirates may be leading the future of the digital economy, but allegations of money laundering and cryptocurrencies could disrupt the existing financial structure. Chinese cryptocurrency entrepreneurs have made Dubai their new base. It remains to be seen how the new ventures will shape the future of the Chinese expat community.