Ishaq Madan Shoppers browse at the new Dragon City Mall in Bahrain.

Bahrain's Dragon City

China's Megamall Ambitions in the Middle East

The pagoda-like buildings of Dragon City, a Chinese megamall, is an odd vision in the desert landscape of Muharraq, the third-largest city in Bahrain. The large complex, laid out in a traditional Chinese courtyard style, sports cavernous hallways lined with larger-than-life red lanterns hanging from industrial-looking ceiling beams. As I browsed a store designed to look like a high-end watch retailer, the afternoon adhan, or call to prayer, began to echo through the halls. Shoppers made their way to the specially designated male and female prayer rooms located on the ground floor of the mall. Many of the shopkeepers who were Chinese remained in their stores. One salesman hummed along with the call to prayer as he folded bedding. The emptying halls revealed an endless array of items for sale: light-up sneakers, crystal chandeliers, traditional Gulf incense, and custom-tailored abayas. And that was just the section for commercial goods. Another wing was devoted entirely to industrial items. There, I was greeted by a young shopkeeper named Zhu selling jet skis. She was originally from Beijing, but had just arrived the day before from Dubai, where she had lived for two years.

Zhu is but one of the thousands of Chinese workers who have come to the Gulf for better opportunities. The region is part of China’s so-called New Silk Road project, which connects Chinese companies to markets in the Middle East, Africa, and throughout Asia. And Dragon City is an important brick in the road. As China’s GDP growth slows, President Xi Jinping is looking for new channels to sustain the country’s growth, and the ambitious New Silk Road project is part of the solution. At the heart of the initiative is the creation of a trading route that retraces the original Silk Road and aims to offload some of the country’s excess labor and goods to places such as the Middle East.

Dragon City represents a sizeable investment of $100 million on the part of Diyar Al developed the mall. But it is managed by a Chinese company called Chinamex, the same one that oversees Dubai's Dragon Mart, the largest Chinese retail and wholesale trading center outside of China. But there is some ambiguity as to who both Dragon Mart and Dragon City’s investors are and whether they are tied to the Chinese government.

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