In 1998, a shipwreck was discovered off the coast of Indonesia. It turned out to be the remains of an early ninth-century dhow from the Gulf that had been headed back from China with a cargo of over 70,000 items, primarily ceramics, produced in different Chinese regions. The goods varied in style and quality, and had clearly been custom-made for the different tastes of the major trading centers of the Gulf. Thousands of ceramic bowls and dishes had been neatly stacked into hundreds of large urns, which in turn had been arranged in several layers of rows along the bottom of the dhow.

Today, once again, ships laden with rows and rows of containers filled to the brim with custom-made goods for different Middle Eastern markets are leaving China’s ports and retracing the maritime Silk Route back to the Gulf. Many of these goods are headed to DragonMart, just outside Dubai, the largest Chinese retail center outside of China. Built in 2004 as a joint venture between the Dubai government’s Nakheel development corporation and China’s state-owned Chinamex Corporation, DragonMart rapidly gained customers from throughout the Gulf, the Middle East and Africa.

Over three quarters of a mile in length, with nearly 4,000 vendors, DragonMart attracts both retail and wholesale customers with a dizzying array of goods: from furniture, cosmetics, construction machinery, bathroom and lighting fixtures, office supplies and traditional Chinese ceramics to shishas, shaylas and abayas, thobes, kaffiyyas and all the trappings needed for the Gulf’s famously over-the-top wedding extravaganzas. It is estimated that over a million different types of goods are sold at DragonMart, and that every year close to 2 million customers visit, spending billions of dollars.

Its extraordinary success would have been hard to imagine when it first opened. Located on the then outskirts of Dubai and surrounded by desert, as one headed off into the desert to find it, it was as if one was setting off along the historical Silk Road, and hoping very much not to get lost. Today, however, the success of DragonMart mirrors the success of the city of Dubai, which has not only expanded out into the desert, but well past DragonMart. In the early days the parking lot was mostly jammed with vehicles from Dubai and other neighboring emirates, but now it is filled with cars from throughout the region, and growing numbers of customers are flying in to make personal purchases, as well as to place wholesale orders.

One of the reasons that sales are so high is that many of the customers are wholesale buyers from throughout the region, as well as Africa, who now travel to Dubai, rather than all the way to China, to place orders. In an interesting take on the mountain coming to Muhammad metaphor, the Chinese state decided to further facilitate the global reach of its manufacturing industry by establishing a wholesale market in Dubai. Not only is Dubai easier to get to and easier to navigate than the manufacturing centers in Chinese cities such as Guangzhou (Canton) and Yiwu, but both warehousing and shipping services are located in DragonMart, greatly facilitating the storage and transport of goods.

Growing Networks and Population

Over the past decade both China and Dubai made the prescient decision to invest billions in the development of transportation networks and infrastructure. Both economies have benefited tremendously. [1] Some 70 percent of all manufactured goods leaving China by sea make their way to Dubai before either unloading their goods for regional markets or going on to markets in Europe and Africa. Dubai Ports World is now one of the largest marine terminal operators in the world with over 60 ports spread across the world. In addition to developing its own series of ports, China is also investing in railway systems across Southeast and Central Asia.

Although both China and neighboring countries have increasingly invoked the historical Silk Road when discussing burgeoning trade routes and networks, the Chinese government recently announced a comprehensive policy dealing with a wide range of projects. Entitled “The Silk Road Economic Belt and Twenty-First-Century Maritime Silk Road,” this initiative seeks to incorporate both development projects and trade along both the overland and maritime routes. According to Chinese reports, “Last year, trade volume between China and countries on the new initiatives reaches $1 trillion, accounting for one fourth of China’s total foreign trade turnover.” [2]

During this same period, airline and air cargo links between China and the Gulf have also increased tremendously. Dubai-based Emirates Airlines now has 40 direct flights to China every week. Regional competitor Etihad (based in Abu Dhabi) now flies to three Chinese cities, and Qatar Airways to six.

In many respects, the growth of DragonMart reflects the fast-growing Chinese population of the emirate. When DragonMart first opened there were only about 10,000 Chinese living in Dubai, and most of the workers and shopowners in DragonMart came from just two areas of China — the coastal Fujian province and Wenzhou in Zhejiang province (from which most emigrants have historically gone to Europe). As businesses succeeded, many migrants recruited family members to join them. Some even convinced their parents to move all the way to Dubai to look after their children while they worked. Most of the workers live in International City, a large housing complex located right next to DragonMart. Unlike many of the housing developments in Dubai, this one was designed for low- to middle-income tenants.

Now there are an estimated 300,000 Chinese living in the UAE, the vast majority in Dubai. Most are shopowners and entrepreneurs, but there are also a large number of engineers working on various large-scale development and infrastructure projects in the region, including the completion of a strategic pipeline linking the Gulf with the Indian Ocean. The 230-mile pipeline can move 1.5 million barrels of crude oil per day across the UAE to Fujayra on the coast, thus allowing Abu Dhabi to transport 70 percent of its oil production avoiding the “chokepoint” of the Strait of Hormuz. [3] There is also a $1 billion hotel development on Dubai’s famous Palm Jumeirah Island. [4]

World’s Largest Community Center?

Another important role played by DragonMart is as both a community center for the local Chinese population as well as a “public space” to celebrate Chinese-Gulf relations. Over the past few years Chinese New Year celebrations at DragonMart have grown increasingly large and elaborate, involving more and more activities, as well as Chinese and UAE officials. A variety of special events are also held in the large formal entrance. One of the most interesting events was a photographic exhibit organized by China’s official news agency, Xinhua, which took place in September and October 2012. Celebrating Sino-UAE Friendship, the exhibit was titled “Good Friends, Partners and Brothers.” After the requisite series of portraits of the rulers of all seven emirates, the exhibit prominently displayed a 1990 portrait of Sheikh Zayed Al Nahayan visiting China’s Great Wall and other Sino-Gulf related diplomatic trips. The exhibit also included a survey of diplomatic highlights of Sino-Middle Eastern relations, including portraits of Chinese Premier Chou En-Lai with Gamal Abdel Nasser in Cairo in 1965, and with Yasser Arafat in Beijing in 1970.

The exhibit went on to document the range of major development projects China has undertaken around the Arab world, including photos of Chinese engineers talking with Yemeni workers on a major road project in 1960 and a photo of Sudanese women celebrating the completion of the Merowe hydroelectric dam in 2010. This section also featured a photo of a commercial development project close to the heart of many Dubaians, the Meydan Racecourse, home of the Dubai World Cup, offering horse racing’s biggest purse at $10 million. The last part of the exhibit focused on beautiful images depicting China’s natural scenery. Although quite simply laid out, the exhibit did in fact convey a great deal of information about the range of China’s interactions with the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and the rest of the Middle East over the past few decades.

DragonMart is also now home to more traditional Chinese cultural celebrations, such as those surrounding Chinese New Year. During the Chinese New Year celebrations, which took place over three days in late January, DragonMart organized 20 live performances, of course including the famous dragon dance, and over the weekend expected even more than the usual 200,000 visitors.

But these days it is not only DragonMart that celebrates Chinese New Year. In 2013 Dubai’s most famous malls all held special events to mark the occasion, and as increasing numbers of wealthy Chinese tourists travel to the UAE, the country’s two most iconic hotels, Burj al-Arab in Dubai and Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi, have both developed special packages for Chinese guests that are proving to be extremely popular with Chinese guests now taking up the majority of the rooms in both hotels during this event. Hotels, high-end malls and airports have all hired Chinese-speaking staff to deal with the growing demand. According to surveys carried out in some of the most exclusive designer stores in Dubai, Chinese tourists now spend more per visit than any other customers in the world. Given Dubai’s reputation for attracting some of the wealthiest tourists in the world, such as Russian billionaires, this development is quite impressive. [5]

Growing Presence of Chinese Muslims

When I first visited DragonMart in 2004, shortly after it opened, I did not meet any Chinese Muslims. On visits in 2012 and 2013, however, there were a noticeable number of Chinese Muslims working in the complex. When asked, several of them estimated that now about 25 percent of the workers were Chinese Muslims, primarily Hui (the largest of China’s ten predominantly Muslim ethnic groups) with a growing number of Uighurs from northwest China. Most of the Hui I interviewed had spent some time studying Arabic at one of the many independent Islamic schools spread throughout China. Unlike the Han Chinese, the overwhelming number of whom came from just two regions in China, the Hui came from different communities throughout China. But like the Han Chinese, many had either followed family members to Dubai, or persuaded them to join them there.

Like many other Hui in DragonMart, Ma Jianmin had studied Arabic in China, but then after continuing his Islamic education in Pakistan, had decided to try his luck doing business in Sharja. He worked there for several years before deciding to open a kiosk in DragonMart, where he sells traditional Chinese medical herbs. His younger brother, Ma Xuezhong, helped set up the Confucius Institute at the University of Dubai. Both Ma brothers, as well as most of the other Chinese Muslims interviewed, were very positive about their experience in Dubai and appreciated the opportunity to live and do business in a Muslim country where they were allowed to freely and conveniently practice their religion. In the aftermath of violence in Xinjiang in the summer of 2009, more and more Uighurs are also making their way to Dubai and DragonMart.

One of the most interesting developments associated with the growing number of Chinese Muslims working at DragonMart is the opening of several Chinese Muslim restaurants next door in International City. As of April, there are nine different halal restaurants, most run by Hui but a few by Uighurs. These restaurants both serve informal meeting places for Chinese Muslims and, more important, provide job opportunities for the community. The restaurants are all popular, not simply with Chinese Muslims, but with Han Chinese and Muslim Arabs and South Asians. Due to the increasing number of non-Chinese customers, the restaurants have hired English-speaking waiters.

DragonMarts Around the World

Following up on the success of DragonMart, in October 2010, China Mall, another retail center, opened in Ajman (one of the small emirates of the UAE). Later that same month, China Mart opened in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, followed by companion complexes in Dammam and Jidda. The next incarnation in the Gulf will be known as Dragon City and is being built in Bahrain with Kuwaiti funding. [6] A Dragon Mall has already been completed in Qatar, but like Ikea and several similar commercial projects, has been inexplicably held up awaiting the Doha municipality’s approval.

Meanwhile, a $150 million expansion of the original DragonMart is underway and scheduled for completion later in 2014. In an effort to attract even more customers, the expansion will include more of the features found in other malls in the region, such as a hotel, movie theaters, restaurants, entertainment centers and a Carrefour-like “hypermarket,” selling both groceries and department store items, but apparently not a massive indoor aquarium or ski slope, at least not yet. The biggest change will be the inclusion of international retail store chains. There are now plans for similar projects in Thailand, Mexico and Panama. [7]

As Chinese entrepreneurs have made their way to almost every region of the world selling inexpensive Chinese-made goods that undermine local craftspeople and shopkeepers, they have engendered a range of resentment ranging in degree from anger to violence. One advantage to the DragonMart model is that it allows local business owners to travel to regional centers and buy goods for their own stores. Thus, shopkeepers from throughout the Gulf, the Middle East and many parts of Africa now travel to Dubai to stock their shelves. And while this commerce may reduce the resentment of these shopkeepers, who profit from the accessibility of inexpensive products, it is not known what sort of impact this expansion of market access to Chinese goods is doing to local craftspeople. But it is not just local artisans who have to worry, according to economists Juan Pablo Cardenal and Heriberto Araujo who have documented the impact of Chinese foreign trade around the world. “Made-in-China products are climbing up the value chain while remaining competitively priced. The country is slowly but resolutely moving away from shoes and toy exports, to those of cars, satellites and high-speed trains.” [8]

Endnotes

[1] See, for instance, Jacqueline Armijo and Lina Kassem, “Turning East: The Social and Cultural Implications of the Gulf’s Increasingly Strong Economic and Strategic Relations with China,” Singapore Middle East Papers: Asia and the Gulf, vol. 1 (2012), pp. 22-45.
[2] China Daily (Beijing), April 11, 2014.
[3] Gulf News, July 16, 2012.
[4] The National (Abu Dhabi), May 16, 2013.
[5] New York Times, May 2, 2012.
[6] The National, February 12, 2014.
[7] So far, two of these projects have attracted protesters. See the editorial in the Bangkok Post, January 20, 2011 and McClatchy, January 30, 2013. At least in the Cancun project, important concessions were granted, including an agreement that Chinese not sell shoes and clothing, two important Mexican industries, and that foreign manufacturers also be allowed to showcase their goods. The project in Panama is called Panda Mart.
[8] Juan Pablo Cardenal and Heriberto Araujo, “Venturing Capitalists,” South China Morning Post, February 5, 2012.

Image: The Sino-UAE Friendship exhibit in DragonMart. (Jacqueline Armijo)

How to cite this article:

Jacqueline Armijo "DragonMart, the Mega-Souk of Today’s Silk Road," Middle East Report 270 (Spring 2014).
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