No-one knew where Dubai was 15 years ago. I remember summers in the UK, attempting to explain to other kids exactly where it was that I lived. I would grasp at Saudi Arabia, Oman, Iraq, even geographically distant Egypt in an attempt to verbally construct a map of the Gulf. It’s quite the opposite now - a mention of Dubai is met with knowing nods of recognition. Instead, I’m often asked to clarify if Dubai is a city or a country in its own right, such is its larger than life reputation. Abu Dhabi aside, the other emirates are largely unknown and unreported.
But in the past week, it has been Fujairah making headlines in the international press. Known by UAE expats for snorkelling and scuba diving, a weekend trip is a welcome change of scenery; swapping high rises and sand for the Hajar mountain range and the odd donkey. Now, the emirate has been featured by the likes of Bloomberg Businessweek ↑ , (who called it “the crucial Emirate”) and Monocle ↑ as the next possible boomtown.
Why all the fuss? Up until now, it has remained something of a small, sleepy, backwater, subsidised by Abu Dhabi and underdeveloped in comparison. But unlike the UAE’s six other emirates which sit on the Persian/Arabian Gulf, Fujairah lies on the Gulf of Oman; beyond the infamous bottleneck of the Strait of Hormuz ↑ . A 400km pipeline running from Abu Dhabi’s oil fields in Habshan to Fujairah’s ports is due to open ‘soon’ (there are no more specifics on the timeline of this delayed project). Carrying two thirds ↑ of the UAE’s oil, the pipeline by-passes the Strait of Hormuz and effectively dampens Iranian threats of cutting off supply.
This news is clearly pertinent to the sabre-rattling relationship between the UAE and Iran. But most intriguing is the partnership involved in building the project. Helping to construct the pipeline was a subsidiary company of the China National Petroleum Corporation.
Much has been reported on China’s involvement in Africa, but their dealings in the Arab world have been less scrutinised (a notable exception is this Foreign Policy article ↑ from 2010). Oil hungry, China juggles partnerships in the GCC energy sector while pledging to pump $50 billion over five years into Iranian projects. Collaboration in the UAE goes beyond energy needs. Aside from Dragonmart, the 150,000 square metre mall facilitating Chinese trade in the UAE, in May this year Abu Dhabi real estate firm Aabar signed a construction deal ↑ with a Chinese state firm, while Dubai’s Meydan Racecourse has invested to develop the equestrian scene ↑ in Tianjian.
But the Chinese aren’t the only country strengthening ties to the UAE. Returning to Dubai from Seoul, what is apparent is the swelling South Korean expatriate population. With partnerships in oil, gas, construction and engineering, South Korea secured the $20bn contract to develop nuclear energy in the UAE, which was widely expected to be given to a country with a more established nuclear energy sector, such as France. The impact of these developing links is subtle but evident. The influx of South Koreans means that two out of five students in my Arabic class were Korean, new Korean restaurants are opening, and cinemas are showing a Korean film.
The UAE has some of the largest Chinese and Korean populations in the Middle East. While GGC-Iran relations are more visible in foreign affairs, analysts should not overlook growing relationships with Asian countries.