More and more Chinese are learning Arabic. It was one of those facts that stayed with me after a trip to the Chinese capital of Beijing. But it should come as no surprise since thousands of Chinese are already living and working in Arab countries. Perhaps, the bigger surprise was to see many Arabs, mainly from northern African countries, fluently speaking Mandarin.
Language plays a key role in relations between nations and people, particularly in matters of economy and trade. The interest in each other’s language is only natural since China and the Arabs are reviving their historic ties and that will provide more opportunities for cooperation across several sectors.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the UAE week before last was a milestone and it gave a big boost to relations between the Gulf state and the Asian giant. Trade is one of the cornerstones of the relationship.
Some years back, China had launched an initiative to revive the ancient Silk Road that helped transport silk and other products to the West. The new venture, known as the Belt and Road Initiative aims to provide connections to Europe, Africa as well as other parts of Asia. Arabs too are part of the plan, and the UAE has signed up to it.
Besides language that helps in trade, the Chinese and Arabs can learn much more from each other. Economic ties would facilitate an exchange of cultures and habits. Each side can adopt practices that would be beneficial to them.
The ability of the Chinese to work for long hours and their strong will to succeed are qualities that the Arabs could inculcate into their culture. On the other hand, the Chinese can look at the way Arab hospitality helps in fostering better friendships and stronger trade ties.
During my recent to visit Beijing, I was amazed at the number of stores and shops that remained open even on Sundays. The Chinese official accompanying us said: “Of course, Chinese are hardworking people.”
Some reports say that the Chinese work between 2,000 to 2,200 hours out of 8,736 hours in a year. This is the equivalent of working between five-and-a-half to six hours every day for 365 days a year. This means between 38.5 and 42.5 hours a week. And it does not include annual leave.
The British, according to United Nations agencies, work 1,677 hours a year, which is nearly 32.25 hours a week. The Americans, according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics, work an average of 34.5 hours per week, or 1,794 hours a year. In Europe, the people with the longest working hours are the Greek with an average of 42.3 hours a week, and worldwide it is Mexico. The average worker in Mexico works 2,255 hours a year, or a little over 43 hours a week. Costa Rica, South Korea and Chile come among the five top countries in terms of average working hours.
Chinese economists say that since China lags behind countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States in production efficiency, the Chinese have to work longer hours so as to catch up with the West. It’s no surprise that China has become the second largest economy in the world.
What about the Arabs? They are still far behind developed nations. Poor production efficiency is certainly one of the main reasons. Available figures on Arab productivity or working hours are very limited. But none of the Arab countries are placed in the top-38 nationalities with longest working hours. Some reports say people in Dubai, a cosmopolitan city with international financial and trade offices, work an average of 42.4 hours a week.
Arabs, though, can teach the Chinese a few lessons in hospitality: How to extend a welcoming hand to friends and strangers, for one.
One of my friends from a western country, and who has lived in Arab countries, said: “Arabs, regardless of their nationality, are very warm and welcoming and this is something the Chinese can learn from the Arabs.” The Chinese are cordial and generous, but only when they get to know you well, or if you are with their friends and families, another person who travels frequently to China said.
The Chinese hospitality sector has a great potential for growth. With the largest population in the world and with some of the most fascinating touristic attractions, including the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, the opportunities are plenty. In Beijing, many officials and experts interviewed repeatedly referred to the “seven-star-hotels” in UAE, while referring to Burj Al Arab in Dubai and Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi. Both showcase great architecture and offer amazing hospitality.
The Arabs and Chinese can justifiably be proud of their rich history and heritage. They can learn from the experiences of each other. An old Arab proverb says: “Seek knowledge even if you go as far as China”. China today is just over eight hours away from the Arabs — thanks to modern aviation. But the proverb holds true even now.