Jordan: China's Gateway to the Middle East

A bustling trade fair illustrates the possibilities—and limits—of Beijing's engagement in the region.
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Jordan's King Abdullah II, left, is greeted by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013. Relations between China and Jordan have grown closer in recent years. (Feng Li/AP)

AMMAN, JORDAN—A pair of golden dragons crowns the inflatable red archway in front of Amman’s International Motor Show Center, guarding the entrance to a exhibition ground featuring more than 32,000 square feet of machinery, solar panels, car seats, wind turbines, LED street lights and gas station equipment. Inside, Chinese salesgirls march around the booths with clipboards, dressed in black skirts and high heels. Arab men in business suits, accompanied by their wives, stroll about in small groups, stopping every once in a while to look at the assembled products and give out business cards. Chinese, Arabic and English buzz through the air: “Ya salaam, I need the NC double cutter,” “We make visa for your engineer to come,” “You know Hebei? Hebei very cheap!”

Welcome to the 10th annual China Fair Jordan 2013, an event proclaiming itself the “Largest China Fair in the Near East.” Set in two weeklong sessions in September, the exhibition features over a thousand Chinese suppliers displaying 12,000 made-in-China products for customers from across the Middle East.

The fair coincides with King Abdullah II’s trip to China this week, which is the Jordanian monarch’s 7th official state visit to the country since 1999. As the world negotiates over neighboring Syria and the Jordanian people worry about refugees and chemical attack, Abdullah is touring the Huawei research center, Shanghai’s Jinqiao economic zone, and the first China-Arab States Expo in Ningxia, a northwestern province known for its sizeable Muslim minority. King Abdullah’s interest in China reflects the closer ties between the two countries; Chinese-Jordanian trade has grown at steady double-digit rates in the last decade and China is now Jordan’s 3rd largest trade partner, all while war and political instability have thrown Jordan’s neighbors into turmoil.

“We call it ni shi zeng zhang,” says Liu Chao, chief of political and press affairs at the Chinese Embassy in Amman. “That means something like ‘growth even though the environment is not good.’ The view is beautiful here even if it is ugly all around.”

Both Chinese and Jordanian governments endorse the fair, which is organized by the Jordanian events company Petra Travel and Tourism in conjunction with Meorient, a Shanghai-based firm that specializes in holding Chinese product expos around the world. Binu Pillai, the Meorient chief operating officer, is a quick-speaking, smartly dressed Indian who previously worked in Dubai. His business card is in Chinese.

“We run campaigns in China to get sellers and then run campaigns in Jordan to get buyers,” Pillai says. “It’s like matchmaking.”

Jordan is ideally located for the expo, Pillai says, because of its proximity to Syria, the Palestinian Territories, Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq, all countries with market potential but also political instability.

“Jordan is a small market, but it can be a gateway to the entire Levant,” Pillai says, referring to the western part of the Middle East. “It’s a hub. It’s also secure, which is absolutely a priority.”

Wael Kawar, managing partner of Petra Travel and Tourism, also calls Jordan a “hub” for the Levantine countries, most of which, in contrast to the Gulf States, have little oil. Though the countries cannot satisfy China’s energy needs, they at least provide a market for Chinese goods.

Gai Kuo, a 23 year-old student from China, is working at the fair as a freelance translator. She stands behind a large sign for “Ultra Filtration Membrane Production Machine,” which she describes as “some kind of filter for machines that make drinking water.” Kuo has lived in Amman for four years, studying Arabic at the University of Jordan. “My mother made me come because she thinks there will be development in the Middle East,” she says. Kuo plans to stay here after graduation regardless of the region’s political turmoil.

“This has nothing to do with business,” she says. “The more other countries fight, actually, the better the business is here.”

Kuo’s boss, a middle-aged businessman from China’s Jiangsu Province, laughs. “Don’t worry. America won’t hit Jordan. It’s a close friend.”

But despite the closer relationship between China and Jordan, even Chinese officials acknowledge that the Middle Eastern country’s most important bilateral relationship is with the United States. Prior to this trip King Abdullah had not gone to China in 2008 for the Beijing Olympics. In the years since, he’s visited America every year, often multiple times.

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Alice Su is a journalist based in Amman, Jordan.

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