YIWU, China, (AFP) — Smoke from hookah pipes and the aroma of lamb skewers on the grill mix in the chilly autumn air as men talk loudly in Arabic over pulsating music beneath the neon glow of restaurant signs.
The scene could be unfolding in any number of cities in the Middle East — but this is eastern China.
Yiwu, a city of two million people 300 kilometres (190 miles) south of Shanghai, has become a crossroads on what has been dubbed a “New Silk Road” between China and the Middle East, attracting more than 200,000 Arab traders each year.
“China is becoming easy — people who cannot speak Chinese or English can come here now,” Ashraf Shahabi, 29, said between greeting customers at his Al-Arabi restaurant, one of a dozen Arab eateries lining Yiwu’s Exotic Street.
As the United States and Europe tightened visa rules after the 9/11 attacks, China made it easier for Arabs to obtain visas, said Ben Simpfendorfer, Royal Bank of Scotland’s chief China economist, who has studied Chinese-Arab ties.
Yiwu officials went further. To promote their massive wholesale market, they helped set up a mosque, encouraged Arabic language schools and allowed the city to become home to an estimated 3,000 Arab permanent residents, officials said.
Shahabi witnessed the city’s transformation. He left Jordan in 2002 to work in his uncle’s restaurant, then one of Yiwu’s few Arab establishments.
He learned Mandarin, started a trading business and married a Chinese woman, who converted to Islam.
Events in the post-9/11 world shaped the flow of traders. Afghans were the first to stream into Yiwu, fleeing the horrors of war, followed by even more Iraqis, also escaping the violence of insurgency and a US-led invasion.
The number of traders from the Arab world then started to rise alongside surging world oil prices and growing spending power in the Middle East, he said.
“It’s all because of Futian,” Shahabi said, using the local name for Yiwu’s sprawling small goods wholesale market.
“It’s the biggest market in the world. The quality’s not so good, but the price is very good.”
The market covers four million square metres (43 million square feet) — and is growing. Yiwu officials boast it would take a year to visit all of the more than 62,000 booths, even if you spent just three minutes at each one.
On a mural welcoming visitors to Futian, bearded men with scimitars on their belts trade pelts to Chinese for embroidered silk, but an enormous range of modern goods awaits today’s traders.
The halls are a catalogue of everything “Made in China” — more than 1.7 million products are sold here, from ukeleles to bunny backpacks, fake iPods to fake eyelashes, netbooks to non-stick frying pans, women’s pumps to power tools.
“It’s really a country,” said Lebanese trader Bashar Wehebe, surveying the shopping mall-like atmosphere while waiting for a sample of a spoon.
Yiwu caters to traders like Wehebe, who buy in quantities of tens instead of tens of thousands like Carrefour or Wal-Mart.
The 28-year-old first came to Yiwu five months ago — this is now his third trip, with the range and quantity of goods he buys increasing with each visit.
He planned to fill three containers with up to 500 different items to sell back home.
Traders rely on Chinese guides and translators — many of them Arabic speakers — to help navigate and negotiate.
More than 60 percent of Yiwu businesses look for Arabic language skills when hiring, according to a labour survey reported by a state newspaper in November 2008.
“Many of the local schools offer Arabic classes,” said Ma Chunzhen, the Beijing-appointed imam at Yiwu’s mosque.
The mosque, a converted factory, was donated by the municipal government in 2004, and foreign and Chinese Muslims paid to renovate it, he said.
“We started with one hundred Muslims coming for Friday prayers. Then we had one thousand, two thousand and now it’s six thousand. It grew very quickly,” Ma said.
“Yiwu emphasises the fact that relations between China and the Middle East are very much the result of individuals,” said Simpfendorfer, who has documented China’s growing ties to the Arab world in his book “The New Silk Road”.
“There is a tendency to assume commercial relations between China and the Middle East are all about oil … that’s not the case.”