Depending on what time of day it is and in which direction you are travelling, a journey from Dubai to its sister Emirate, Sharjah, can take anywhere between 20 minutes and two hours. Sharjah, whose name means “easterly” or “shiny” and has a population of 800,000, is sometimes unfairly referred to by some expatriates in the UAE as “the bedroom of Dubai” since tens of thousands of residents, nationals and expatriates alike, commute daily to their place of work in Dubai from Sharjah.
Although less glamorous than Dubai, it is certainly not less charming as it boasts a colourful array of specialist museums including ones for Arabic calligraphy, science, archaeology and classic cars, and its own wildlife centre and botanical garden.
Just last March, The Sharjah Arts Museum, which hosts the Sharjah Biennale, the region’s most prestigious art event, hosted Treasures from the East. The exhibition of Orientalist paintings included priceless pieces from various collections as well as from the Tate Galleries where the exhibition began, and paintings from the ruler of Sharjah’s private collection.
The Exeter University educated ruler of Sharjah, Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qassimi (who in the interest of full disclosure is my late father’s second cousin) since assuming power in 1972 has overseen a cultural renaissance in the 1,000 square mile emirate. His efforts culminated in Sharjah’s designation by Unesco in 1998 as the Cultural Capital of the Arab World. He received in 2001 the prestigious King Faisal Prize for Service to Islam that is usually reserved for institutions, proving the status that he has attained in the Gulf and the wider Middle East region.
Dr Sheikh Sultan founded the liberal American University of Sharjah in 1997, which is considered to be among the most prestigious universities in the Arab world, possibly second only to The American University of Beirut. AUS, as it is referred to, maintains a strict admissions policy that targets the top percentile of high school graduates in the region and offers generous scholarships to less wealthy candidates. Today AUS attracts the intellectual elite of the region and the world to teach there.
Last summer Sharjah discreetly inaugurated the first Islamic Civilisations Museum in the Gulf, showcasing over 5,000 Islamic artefacts in a magnificent converted 20-year-old souq, several months before the more glamorous Doha Museum of Islamic Arts opening that was attended by celebrities and foreign leaders amid a fantastical fireworks display. In Sharjah, subtlety and humility prevail, due to the personality of its ruler and the dearth of its liquidity. Whatever money there is must be spent all the more prudently.
In the not too distant past, Sharjah’s absence from newspaper headlines while its Gulf neighbours were promoting massive real estate projects was considered to be a sign of complacency. However, it may yet turn out that the approach that Sharjah has taken is safer during downturns such as the one we are facing today. There are fewer lay offs, but equally there were fewer global businesses and job opportunities. The biggest employer is the federal and local governments but it is Sharjah’s small and medium sized enterprises that are probably the backbone of its economy and what will sustain it beyond its limited gas resources.
While other emirates in the UAE maintained a more liberal policy of freehold property sales, Sharjah – along with Fujairah – imposed more restrictions on the market, which may have spared it from the fallout of the global credit crunch. Sharjah has impressively attracted 1.5 million tourists in 2008, similar to Abu Dhabi, although the number pales in comparison to Dubai’s seven million visitors.
Finally, Sharjah’s biggest contribution to the federation is its human capital; having provided the UAE with its first education minister, first female minister, first female ambassador and the current minister of culture in addition to many of its young people who today are entrusted with many prominent positions in other emirates.
Sharjah is my home emirate, but, as I have written and alluded to many times in these pages, my loyalty, as that of other Emiratis, is to the UAE as a federal state. And by any objective assessment, what Sharjah has accomplished is impressive. Ultimately, only time will tell if Sharjah’s slow and steady growth is proven to be a missed opportunity or a winning formula. But perhaps Sharjah’s biggest asset isn’t its lower cost advantage, its impressive array of cultural and academic institutions or its large pool of talented nationals. Perhaps the biggest asset that Sharjah holds is the leadership of Dr Sheikh Sultan, whose vision continues to shape this cultural oasis of the Gulf.
*Originally published in The National on Sunday, May 31st 2009.