If you’ve been wandering through the innards of The Dubai Mall recently, you might have noticed a slight change in decor. It’s such a small change, however, that it’s easily missed. It only accounts to a small few words here and there, and it really only caters to a niche audience.

But this change serves a much grander purpose than just a few characters on a sign. Late last year, The Dubai Mall’s signage was updated to include not only English and Arabic, but ­Chinese, too. A spokesperson for Emaar, which operates the mall, confirmed the additions were erected in August 2018. They would not say why.

A Burgeoning Chinese Population

However, it’s likely due to the exponential rise of ­Chinese tourists and residents in the Emirates, and domestic efforts to cater to a burgeoning Chinese population. Elsewhere, as Chinese New Year festivities kick off, the culture and traditions of the Far East are being celebrated across the UAE. More than ever before, the Chinese diaspora seems to be creating a UAE Chinatown of sorts. It’s a notion most poignant in the areas around Dragon Mart, which is on the cusp of becoming “Dragon City”.

To many, Dragon Mart is simply a one-stop shop for bargain-hunters, packed with Chinese products that include garments, jewellery, furniture, electronic goods and interior offerings. Visit on a weekend and you’ll not only struggle to find a parking space, but you’ll also find yourself among a sea of eager shoppers and retailers alike. This unwavering popularity prompted a Dragon Mart 2 to open next door in 2015. It’s now the biggest Chinese trading hub outside China, with 120,000 visitors a day, a 500 per cent increase from the 20,000 per day it welcomed in 2010.

Dragon City

And the Dragon Mart expansion isn’t over yet. In fact, get ready to start referring to it as “Dragon City”. An ibis hotel opened at the complex in 2016, a second hotel, a Premier Inn, is under construction, a new showroom and car park complex is nearing completion, and the first residential component, Dragon Towers, is set to be completed by 2021.

In 2018, a new road network opened around Dragon Mart and International City – with developer Nakheel putting Dh201 million towards the project. Nakheel operates both developments. “Clients are from all walks of life. Some are residents; some are tourists,” Nakheel spokeswoman ­Rebecca Rees says. “It’s not unusual for visitors to come from neighbouring countries to spend the weekend at Dragon Mart – which is part of the reason for the hotel there. The traders at Dragon Mart are all Chinese, but the visitors are from everywhere.”

Near the Dragon Mart complex, the aforementioned suburb of International City may have been named for its multiculturalism, but it’s dominated by one nationality more than others. The China cluster is the busiest and most popular section, and is the hub of Chinese life in Dubai. One of Dubai’s most affordable districts, walking through the streets of International City, you’ll notice the cafes, stores and salons displaying large Chinese-language signboards.

An ariel view of International City.
Photo: An ariel view of International City.

‘The Heart of the Chinese Community’

It’s become well-known for its proliferation of cheap, authentic Chinese restaurants that hone in on cuisines from the different regions. Of the estimated 200,000 Chinese people who live in Dubai, one in four live in International City, Rees says. “It’s the heart of the Chinese community here. International City has around 120,000 residents in total; Chinese make up over 40 per cent of residents there.

“In terms of investments with Nakheel, Chinese people are our biggest group of investors from South East Asia / Far East, having bought more than 400 properties from us, spending around Dh800 million.”Nakheel had also just appointed a Chinese company, Beijing Water Design, to deliver and operate the dancing fountain at The Pointe, the new development on the Palm Jumeirah. The contract was worth Dh66m.

And more UAE-based companies are setting out to cater for the readily-expanding Chinese market. A new 24-hour radio station catering to the UAE’s Chinese population was announced in 2018, in a partnership between the Arabian News Network and the new Hala China initiative (a joint project between Dubai Holding and Meraas, to attract Chinese visitors to the UAE). The station will be called “the Sounds of the Dubai Dragon”.

‘Silk Road for the 21st Century’

Wei Du, associate director of the Confucius Institute at Zayed University, says the environment for Chinese to move to and invest in the UAE was “perfect”. Wei pointed to China’s Belt and the Road initiative, a project which is often described as a Silk Road for the 21st Century – made up of overland corridors (the belt) and a sea of shipping routes (the road). The UAE was a key part of this, he says, and the two countries enjoyed a “very good relationship of strategic importance”.

“Ordinary Chinese people look to the UAE as a model of a fast development country, with the tallest building, the best malls; and the UAE is becoming an important tourist destination to the Chinese, especially after the exemption of visas.

“I definitely believe that there will be a more strengthened relationship between the UAE and China, and the UAE is ready to open more of the job market specifically to Chinese. We anticipate a whole boom of the Chinese-UAE co-operation in a wide range of fields.“