Dubai: In his 2022 talk to a news agency, the Ambassador of China to the UAE, Zhang Yiming, noted that Chinese population in the UAE is estimated at 400,000, roughly four per cent of the total population of the UAE.
In 2000, that estimated number was 7000, according to the book ‘Overseas Chinese Research Report (2016)’, published by Huaqiao University directly under the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council. The figure has since then grown nearly 60 times. Before 2000, in the 1990s, this number was even lower – only a few thousands.
From a few thousands, to hundreds of thousands, numerous individuals within the community have witnessed and participated in a staggering transformation curve. Calling the UAE, nearly 5000 kilometers away from China, as home, they have their profound reasons.
Reasons to come to the UAE
UAE-based Huafei Li and former Dubai resident Yiming Mao, wrote in an online article on Dubairen.com, titled ‘A brief history of Chinese in Dubai’, that the earliest the modern-day Chinese came to Dubai was around the 1960s and the 1970s. They were mostly from Hong Kong and Taiwan and came for business purposes.
In the 1980s, under China’s economic reforms, more and more Chinese people came to the UAE for trade purposes. However, most of them were assigned by state-owned companies, which started to set up offices here. The establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries on November 1, 1984, further promoted this trend.
According to Mao and Li, these companies were mainly trading and engineering companies, covering a range of industries such as light industry, and construction.
However, major Chinese migration to the UAE started in the 1990s, thanks to the UAE’s friendly policies, and driven by the ‘going-out’ strategy in China – private sectors and individuals came looking for economic advancement - Yuting Wang, professor of Sociology at the American University of Sharjah, said on a ‘China-MENA’ podcast, which was created by the US-based organisation - Atlantic Council, and features conversations with academics, government leaders and the policy community, on China’s role in the Middle East.
The UAE’s strategic location continued to attract a growing number of Chinese to set up businesses here – it was the door for cost-effective Chinese products to seamlessly flow to the Middle East and Africa. Relatively an untapped market at the time, the UAE helped many Chinese merchants make a great fortune, which in turn brought in more Chinese inhabitants.
Later, the two countries’ bilateral policies, such as China adding the UAE on its ‘destination countries for overseas tours’ list in 2009 and the mutual agreement on visa exemption in 2018, have made individual travel from China to the UAE more convenient. This saw a rising volume of Chinese tourists into the UAE annually. The surge of Chinese tourists in the country led to employment of Chinese staff in several service and retail sectors.
In between these policies, the 2013 unveiling of the Belt and Road Initiative, which is a global infrastructure development strategy proposed by the Chinese government in 2013, also facilitated the movement of Chinese enterprises and individuals into the country.
Over time, the UAE’s increasingly diversified economy fostering varied sectors, and inviting taxation policies engaged more occupationally diversified Chinese workforce to come in.
More importantly, the UAE’s cosmopolitan culture, state-of-the-art public facilities, convenience of life, and easy access to Chinese groceries and products have made many in the community put in their roots in the country for decades and counting.
Dubai hosts the largest and the most diversified Chinese population. According to Mao and Li, the early Dubai settlers concentrated in Deira area, specifically, north to Naif Street, south to Nasser Square (now Baniyas Square), west to Murshid Bazar and east to the Fish Roundabout.
They originally opened shops in Murshid Bazar, and shortly afterwards, established their own specialised ‘bazars’ occupying small buildings, such as ‘China shoe city’, ‘China light industry city’, and ‘China trade city’.
Inside these ‘cities’ were a vibrant micro-Chinese society, where Chinese supermarkets, printing shops, restaurants, travel agencies, real estate agencies, barber shops, pharmacies, and other outlets were up and running to serve a thriving community.
Little do people know, before the completion of Dragon Mart, which is the largest Chinese trading hub outside mainland China, in 2004, these areas in Deira were where commerce between China and the region happened.
However, a few years after Dragon Mart was built, a substantial Chinese neighbourhood started to grow around it, especially in International City, making this locale the new base for Chinese expatriates.
Nowadays, Chinese expatriates have settled in all corners of Dubai, due to the range of their jobs, apart from trade and commerce.
While initially concentrated in trade and commerce, over the years, “the Chinese population has also become diversified in terms of occupation,” said Wang on the China-MENA podcast.
She further explained that the Chinese expatriate community in the UAE can be categorised into four main groups:
- Employees of Chinese state-owned enterprises and large private companies, as well as their dependents
- Self-employed businessmen, their employees and dependents - in 2022, around 6,000 Chinese enterprises were operating in the UAE.
- Chinese-speaking staff in the service sector.
- Highly skilled professionals employed by multinational corporations, the UAE’s educational and research institutions.
Apart from these major groups, Chinese students, investors, artists, internet influencers, and some other groups also reside in the country.
What Gen Y and Gen Z Chinese expatriates say about the UAE
Xiaoyu Huang, chief financial officer (CFO) of the real estate company Allsopp & Allsopp Group, came to the UAE in 2014, through the ‘Dubai business associates’ program.
Originally from Guangzhou city, Huang said that she benefited greatly from this program. “In fact, it influenced my decision and shaped who I am today. In the ten months I stayed with the program, the UAE slowly won my heart over. It opened a new door for me, in terms of career development. I changed my original plan of continuing my Master’s study in China after the program, to stay and work in the UAE.
Personally, Dubai is the most suitable place for overseas Chinese to reside in.
“The program connects top talents with governmental organisations, state-owned companies, and industry-leading private sectors – this was how I landed my first job with Emirates Airline, as a revenue optimisation analyst. From there, I progressed to being assistant finance manager in Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, then senior commercial operation Manager in IQVIA, and finally CFO with Allsopp & Allsopp Group.”
Although in her early 30s, Huang didn’t rest on career advancement, between 2015 and 2016, she obtained her Master’s degree in Professional Accountancy from the University of London. Later, she acquired several professional certificates from different institutes.
She has now been in the UAE for nearly nine years, “I love the energy of Dubai – my families and I are immersed in a multinational environment. There is always something new and fresh for us to learn here.
“Besides, I like how convenient and safe the UAE is. For instance, when I gave birth to my baby here, I enjoyed greatly the advanced medical equipment and the detailed care my doctor and nurses extended towards me. The whole process was smooth and satisfying.
“Personally, Dubai is the most suitable place for overseas Chinese to reside in. Specifically, ranked among countries with the highest average income, the UAE’s housing price remains relatively low compared to others.
“Moreover, under the great vision and leadership of the UAE authorities, the country will continue to carry out policies to attract intellectuals and professionals. People’s living conditions will be enhanced further. As an example - the 10-year golden visa policy, has attracted global talents, industry leaders and investors to come and reside in the country.”
During her spare time, Huang likes to exercise at the gym, meet up with friends, discover different areas of the country and try out new restaurants and cafes. She also have a soft spot for babies who need help in medical care, and is currently sponsoring one in China.
‘Dubai is a place where everyone can find a suitable way to live their lives’
Yilin Huang, a travel influencer based in Dubai, with over two million subscribers on her Chinese social media account, came to the UAE in November, 2016. “I had just completed my Master’s degree in Hong Kong. One day I came across a recruitment advertisement from a media company in Dubai. The job description fit the criteria that I was looking for. Besides, I was curious about Dubai – a city that I’d never visited before.”
Just like that, she applied for the job, got it and packed her bags for the UAE.
Originally from Shantou city, Huang worked as a reporter and choreographer in Dubai during her first four years, covering stories between the UAE and China on areas such as economy and culture, as well as hosting a talk show interviewing outstanding people from all walks of life.
As a travel influencer, I get frequent invites from various sponsors both in and outside the UAE. The UAE’s central location with reference to Asia, Africa, and Europe, as well as its mature transportation network also enables me to travel the globe conveniently.
“Equipped by skills learnt from my job, I started to film my life in the UAE and posted them online – it turned out that many people were interested in my content. The number of my subscribers rocketed from eight thousand to 80 thousand, and it kept growing.
“Then Covid-19 pandemic hit, my company didn’t have much content to be covered – this was when I had the time to consider being an influencer seriously. After much research, in 2020, I decided to quit my job to be a travel influencer full-time.
“As a travel influencer, I get frequent invites from various sponsors both in and outside the UAE. The UAE’s central location with reference to Asia, Africa, and Europe, as well as its mature transportation network also enables me to travel the globe conveniently.
“The rich culture and customs, and world-class hospitality scene within the country constantly cultivate my inspiration to produce creative content.”
However, Huang didn’t think that she would stay in the country for long at the beginning of her UAE journey, but after some time, she grew attached to the place. “Dubai is a place where everyone can find a suitable way to live their lives – personally, I didn’t have to try and fit in any social circles, I can be myself here.
“I also love the fact that workers here get around one month of leave days – it offers me the time to explore beautiful places globally, or spend time with family and friends back in China.
“I love food – all kinds of food, and the UAE has definitely satisfied my taste buds. Take Chinese cuisine as an example - it’s easy to find varying local cuisines here, be it Chongqing hotpot, Chaoshan hotpot, north-eastern cuisine, north-western cuisine… the list goes on.
“Life in Dubai is becoming progressively convenient for the Chinese population. For example, I’ve noticed that Chinese food delivery companies started to cover long distances this year. Sometimes I joke with friends that I can spend a whole day just speaking Mandarin, because everything I need in a day, can be acquired from Chinese shops.
“I adore the sea, and Dubai has many public beaches for me and my husband to enjoy. They are free! And also within reach – no matter how remote you live, you will only need to drive 20 to 30 minutes to reach one. Free public facilities such as a shower place, are available. Lifeguards are also patrolling on these beaches, so it’s safe.
“We like the outdoors. Every weekend, we will drive to the sea, or to the suburb to swim, dive, do stand-up paddle boarding, or hike. When relaxing on the beach, I see women with all body shapes enjoying their time – it makes me happy, I don’t have anxiety over my body image here. It’s a great positive energy.”
The UAE’s welcoming spirit is also reflected in Huang’s daily life, “I feel secure when my needs are responded to. Wherever I go within this country, people all tend to lend a helping hand when I need one.
“Living in the UAE, doing things that I’m passionate about, is the definition of ‘happiness’ in my dictionary.”
‘I’ve always been impressed by the UAE’s constant adaptability to a changing world’
Bingbing Chen, 25 years of age, managing the online presence of his family’s business in the UAE, moved here from Shanxi province, when he was 5 years old – his family started a business selling children’s shoes here and decided to relocate from China.
“Spending most of my childhood and adulthood here, I’ve always been impressed by the UAE’s constant adaptability to a changing world. For example, the country transitioned from having weekends on Thursday and Friday to Friday and Saturday, which helps businesses considerably, especially if they require daily communication with other countries.
“On a personal note, the safety in the UAE is something I truly appreciate – it was one of the primary reasons why I moved back here from the United States, after completing my university degree there. One time, I lost my wallet on a Metro in Dubai, but to my surprise, the officials contacted me to collect it shortly after. Everything inside my wallet was intact – this is one of the many experiences I still cherish to this day.”
Chen majored in Business Administration at his university. Utilising his knowledge, he focuses on transitioning the family business from traditional sales channels to online ones.
“The UAE has a growing E-commerce scene, and the potential is yet to be maximised, especially as infrastructure continues to develop.”
To Chen, the UAE is a land of opportunity, “if you have skills and determination, you can capitalise on them here.”
“It’s also the most welcoming nation in the region, where people with beliefs of all kinds are living and working together – this unique environment fosters a sense of unity and understanding that makes living here truly special,” he concluded.