Dubai: Visiting Dragon Mart in Dubai is like going to a ‘mini-Chinese city’. Shops are largely run by Chinese merchants, many of whom reside in the adjacent International City. They sell almost everything: garments and clothing, electronics, toys, shoes and sports apparel, office and home furnishings, building materials, machinery, medicine, novelty items, furniture, household products and more, catering to around 40 million visitors annually.
A community by themselves, the Chinese expats here consider Dragon Mart their second home.
Located along Al Awir Road just off Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Road, the original sprawling retail complex – shaped in the form of a dragon with a length of 1.2km from ‘head to tail’ – is the world’s largest Chinese trading hub outside mainland China.
Thanks to the UAE’s welcoming policy, many Chinese people saw this as a good opportunity to come to the country and settle here. According to the Chinese Consulate in Dubai, there are now more than 300,000 Chinese expats living in the UAE, with around 95 per cent of them based in Dubai; and approximately 20 per cent of the total Chinese expats live and work in areas surrounding Dragon Mart and the nearby community at International City.
Many Chinese entrepreneurs have flourished in Dubai and one of them is Feizhen Xu, who was one of the first Chinese business persons to open a shop at Dragon Mart.
Originally from China’s Zhenjiang province, Xu first came to Dubai in 2001 and started trading in shoes, fashionwear, food and beverages. She told Gulf News, it actually took some time before her shop at Dragon Mart made a break.
“The first two years of business was actually slow – because Dragon Mart was still new. But sales slowly picked up and skyrocketed. Wholesale business boomed in 2014 and it has seen steady growth since then,” she noted, along with other Chinese traders.
At present, Xu is leasing around 100,000 sqm of shopping space spread across Dragon Mart 1 and manned by around 400 staff.
From the countryside to the city
According to Shumin Zhang, a Chinese expat who is well-connected in the business community, many of the Chinese traders in Dubai originated not from the mega cities of China but from the countryside.
They also started as small vendors – selling sundry items from cigarette lighters to souvenir products – before making it big. Many of them hardly spoke any English but they understood the market trends and were clever enough to be the first ones to provide what consumers needed.
A case in point, Zhang shared, was the hoverboard craze in 2015. The portable two-wheel self-balancing personal transport was first made readily available at Dragon Mart and one young Chinese trader who was only in his early 30s back then made a killing by selling close to Dh20 million worth of hoverboards in just six months.
Zhang added: “Chinese businessmen are very flexible – meaning, when a particular fad becomes obsolete, they will change their products and move to the next trend.”
Secret to success
Another secret of successful Chinese businessmen is that they “work non-stop” – they attend to their shops seven days a week, and they are always hands-on.
“We work hard and we always keep an ear to the ground,” noted 70-year old Chinese businessman Zhihua Chen. “We watch out for trends and the latest and best technology available in the market so we will not miss any business opportunity,” he added.
Originally from Guangdong, a coastal province in southeast China bordering Hong Kong and Macau, Chen first opened his business at Dragon Mart in 2008 selling computers and various electronic products. He was one of the first to offer gadgets to the first wave of bloggers and social media influencers back in mid 2010s.
Still in the game, Chen is now into electric vehicles and green energy. He recently opened Guangshen Smart City Centre at Dragon Mart 2, selling all-electric Volkswagen SUVs. He is also investing in AI (artificial intelligence) products and robotics.
Not all Chinese traders aim to gain ample profit in every product sold, but to earn small profits by selling more items. “Even though you earn little but if you sell more products, your business actually becomes more profitable,” explained Qiong Liang, who is originally from the eastern Chinese province of Anhui, who now has a couple of shops at Dragon Mart.
“People come to us because we offer the cheapest products in the market. We add a little markup so we can sell more items, and, in the end, we earn more,” explained Liang, who first worked as a sales staff before she put up her own business.
She and many other Chinese traders said Dragon Mart has become their business lair for 15 years. Imbibing the traits of a dragon, which is always agile and ready to adapt and innovate, they are confident that more shoppers and bargain-hunters will continue to enter the ‘dragon’ in the many years to come.
The first Chinese mall in the UAE began with Dragon Mart 1 which occupied a space of 1.2 million sq ft. Then Dragon Mart 2 opened in 2015 and doubled the overall size to more than 3.6 million square feet. In 2020, expansion went further with home furniture building covering almost 95,000 square feet, with multiple shops and kiosks.
Aside from the 251-room Ibis Styles hotel directly linked to the mall, there is also a 304-room Premier Inn Hotel within walking distance. There are also more leisure attractions, restaurants, cafés and a 12-screen Novo cinema.
Rashid Al Harmoodi, director, Dragon Mart Leasing at Nakheel, explained to Gulf News why Dragon Mart has become so popular. He said: “The popularity of Dragon Mart stems from it being the world’s largest Chinese trading hub outside mainland China, which means it plays a pivotal role in establishing the strong wholesale trade and cultural ties between the UAE and China.
“It’s a one-stop shop – selling products across multiple categories – which means there is something for everyone,” noted Al Harmoodi, adding: “Together, Dragon Mart 1 and Dragon Mart 2 have more than 5,000 shops and we welcome around 40 million visitors a year, which is a strong testament to our offering a unique shopping experience.”
“To give our customers a more diversified experience, Dragon Mart now features leisure and sporting facilities, including Ahdaaf’s sporting rooftop complex featuring two football pitches, two cricket battling nets, two panoramic padel courts, as well as MyGolf (indoor golf club), indoor badminton courts and a billiards centre. This means we have something for everyone,” he added.
Right across Dragon Mart is International City, launched by Nakheel in 2002 and well known for its trademark low-rise country-themed clusters. This a very accessible community for Chinese expats as it shares borders with other popular neighbourhoods like Silicon Oasis and Dubai International Academic City, as well as villas and townhouses in Al Warsan.
International City is also home to Dubai’s only Chinese mosque and Chinese Islamic Cultural Centre catering not only to Chinese Muslims but to other nationalities around the area. During last Ramadan, volunteers at the Chinese Islamic Cultural Centre distributed around 2,000 food parcels and iftar packs to those who queued up, regardless of religion and ethnic background.
Construction of the 26,000-square foot Islamic centre was supported by Dubai-based charitable organisation Dar Al Ber Society. Chinese imam Isaac Khan earlier told Gulf News the mosque symbolises tolerance and solidarity. Staff and volunteers at the Chinese mosque come from different nationalities — Chinese, Arabs, Indians, Bangladeshis and some from Central Asia, including Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The long-serving Chinese imam also reiterated “the indispensable role of overseas Chinese Muslims from different ethnic backgrounds in the development of the community”.
How to reach Dragon Mart
Driving to Dragon Mart is fast and convenient. It can be easily accessed via Al Awir Road/ Ras Al Khor Road (E44).
Public transport is available, with bus routes 365, 367, 53 and X23. One can also take Dubai Metro (Red Line) and go down at Rashidiya Metro Station and from there, take a taxi or bus.