Entrevista com Ben Simpendorfer, um especialista em relações sino-árabes, na New Yorker:

Is this the first time they’ve come in large numbers or is there an ancient precedent?

Arabs have been visiting China since at least 600 CE. The majority arrived along the Silk Road, one of the world’s historic trade routes. However, trade along the Silk Road dried up after the sixteen-hundreds, in part because the ruling Ming Dynasty turned inwards and attempted to assimilate Arab traders with the local population. (Their descendents are still living in China). And arrivals along the Silk Road soon turned into a trickle. This is what makes today’s events so remarkable. I mean, the sheer number of Arabs travelling to China is something we haven’t seen for over four hundred years. And, for the romantics of the world, the resurrection of the Silk Road is a more attractive side of globalization than is the inexorable spread of box-like Wal-Marts or Carrefours.

Why are they coming?

The Arabs are hungry for “Made in China” goods. Households in Dubai and Riyadh have money to spend as a result of the rise in oil prices. But Chinese goods are also priced right for poorer households in Cairo and Damascus. I’ve been shopping for digital cameras with Arab friends and I can’t explain their delight at being able to afford something once considered a luxury. But cheap goods are only part of the story. Visas are also important. It is difficult for Arab traders to visit Europe or the United States ever since the events of 2001. Their visa applications are either denied or take weeks to process. But they can typically turn up at their local Chinese embassy and receive a visa in a day or less. It’s one of the great untold stories of the global economy. We’re so used to buying our goods from big multinationals like Wal-Mart that it’s easy to forget that its small-trade traders, buying for their own stalls, who drive trade in the developing world.