Marketplace Middle East - Blog
The East-East Economic Axis

Even in China, a country of more than a billion people, it would have been difficult to miss the Ruler of Dubai and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and his delegation representing five and a half million people.

H.H Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum brought an entourage of 50 business leaders and throngs of government support to advance trade between the two economies which are both expanding around 10 percent a year.

While a great deal of this was largely for the cameras, with President Hu Jintao for example handing over the official invitation in a Beijing ceremony, there is a lot to be said about the emerging axis between the Middle East and China. There was hope and early talk of $2 billion dollars worth of deals to be announced on this trip. Nothing really materialized beyond a research agreement between regional mobile operator Etilisat and Huwaei Technologies of China.

Merchandise trade however between China and the U.A.E. has been growing 30 percent or more each year for the last four years. Dubai is home to one of the largest retail and wholesale centers in the world, the Dragon Mart, and Chinese companies are busy constructing buildings across the region. These are the headline numbers, but what may be more fascinating is what could be on the way.

The Chairman of Dubai World, Sultan Ahmad bin Sulayem talks of the “excellent” bi-lateral relations and his group has placed investments on port projects in Qingdao and Shanghai. Unlike the P&O deal in the U.S. which created a fuss in Washington, there was no resistance to the capital investment from the Gulf into China.

During an interview this week on Marketplace Middle East, the former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Shaukat Aziz, underscored the point saying there are no competing interests. The Gulf needs Chinese goods, capital and construction groups. China wants access to a potential market of 430 million people in the Middle East and North Africa region and open access to their oil and natural gas reserves. After a landmark visit to Beijing in January 2006, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia signed a deal to set up a refinery for the Kingdom’s oil on Chinese soil.

While energy security may represent the lion’s share of Chinese foreign policy and its investment decision making (look at Africa for inspiration), it is re-drawing the map of the Silk Route which is literally being re-built from the Middle East to Far East Asia. Good business deals, lead to good relations and open markets for goods and capital. With Washington and Brussels jittery over the Chinese trade surplus and the inability to compete on a low cost basis in certain sectors, Beijing wants to hedge its bets.

Sovereign Power-Play

Beyond trade links, there is a less obvious common ground that China and the U.A.E. share these days, investments by their sovereign wealth funds. While the transatlantic rhetoric has calmed down over the past month, the two countries have been at the forefront of the more high profile stakes in U.S. banks and retail brands such as Barney’s. Dubai International Capital, Istithmar, Dubai World and China Investment Corporation (CIC) are names we are familiar with after the global spending spree that heated up last autumn.

While Sheikh Mohammad was busy exploring b-lateral investments, a key executive at CIC sounded more “Gulf like” when he said “we are facing rising protectionism and nationalism”. After seeing his stakes in Citigroup and Blackstone suffer, CIC has publicly stated it is looking for conservative returns for their $200 billion fund.

Expect more discussions on this front and some unusual partnerships. Overlooked in analysis over a U.S. economic slowdown was a discreet meeting in Washington recently. It was a different type of Asia-Middle East partnership; this time Singapore and Abu Dhabi.

Representatives from sovereign funds GIC and the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority met with U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Deputy Treasury Secretary Robert Kimmitt and agreed on the principles that will govern best practices for investments. This process will wind its way through organizations like the International Monetary Fund and the O.E.C.D., the Paris based think tank for industrialized countries.

While that gathering did not capture the headlines of Sheikh Mohammad’s delegation, it is another example of the new East-East economic axis and the deals and partnerships that are set to emerge along with these markets.

John Defterios’ blog accompanies the weekly business program, Marketplace Middle East (MME) that is dedicated to the latest financial news from the Middle East. As MME anchor, John Defterios talks to the people in the know, finding out their opinions on the big business moves in the region, he provides his views via this weekly blog. We hope you will join the discussion around the issues raised.
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