Sunday, February 21, 2016

‘Let’s not talk politics’: China builds Middle East ties through business

Amid lower growth expectations, Beijing investing in new Silk Road trading initiative

By Alice Su

Al-Jazeera - February 20, 2016

GUANGZHOU, China — Fahd Ali Esmail owns Saba, the only Yemeni restaurant in Guangzhou. He went to China in 2001 at the age of 18, following his father, who had been working in the garment trade in Indonesia.
Esmail spoke neither Chinese nor English then but picked up both as his family moved its fabric business to Guangzhou, then opened a restaurant in 2002. As China joined the World Trade Organization, Arab businessmen flooded into special economic zones like Guangzhou, ordering everything from lingerie to toothbrushes from Chinese factories to sell in the Middle East.
“China welcomes Arabs more than Arabs themselves,” said Esmail, who grew up in Saudi Arabia but has no intention of returning there or to Yemen, especially with the ongoing civil war. His family has found customers among the Arabs who congregate in areas like Guangzhou’s Xiaobei Lu, a hub for African and Middle Eastern communities. There, cellphone stores selling unlocked SIM cards with Facebook access sit among mini-markets stocked with dates, tahini and chocolate imported from Iran. Chinese waiters serve customers from menus filled with Levantine salads and Turkish kebabs as well as Cantonese dim sum.
Arabs are in China largely for the same reason that China is increasingly going into the Arab world: business. Last month Chinese president Xi Jinping made his first diplomatic visit to the Middle East. Amid heightened regional tensions after Saudi Arabia’s execution of prominent Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, Xi met with leaders in Riyadh, Cairo and Tehran. His trip underscored China’s recent attempts to expand its role in conflict resolution, even as Beijing emphasizes its principle of noninterference. China supports peace talks rather than “looking for a proxy in the Middle East or seeking any sphere of influence,” Xi remarked before the Arab League at its headquarters in Egypt.

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