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Sharjah, the capital of the emirate of the same name, is the third largest city of the UAE, with around 900,000 inhabitants.
In classical Arabic its name is Al Sharqa, الشارقة, resembling the Arabic word for east, corresponding with the fact that the city is located in the very eastern corner of the Gulf. It was settled for over 5000 years and was one of the most important cities in the region, before Dubai and Abu Dhabi economically overtook it.
The Al Qasimi family is the oldest continually ruling family in the Emirates. The current Emir of Sharjah is Sheikh Sultan ibn Mohamed Al Qasimi (b. 1939), who became ruler in 1972. The Emir is a dedicated supporter of the arts. He is a playwright, having started in that field long before he became ruler, and he still exercises that profession regularly. He has also written many books. During the first decades of his rule Sharjah became the cultural capital of the UAE.
As housing prices in Sharjah are much lower than in Dubai, Sharjah became home to quite a few commuters working in Dubai. Subsequently, part of Dubai’s construction boom spilled over to Sharjah and numerous high-rises were constructed, unfortunately in a way that lacks the grand style and neat arrangement of Dubai. Nowadays, the triad of adjacent cities of Dubai, Sharjah and Ajman is growing increasingly into one metropolis. Initial plans to link Sharjah with Dubai’s metro system have been suspended, but may be revived.
Partly as compensation for its somewhat disorganized urbanization leap, Sharjah has carefully nurtured what has been left of the past. The clearest example is the so-called Heritage Area or Arts and Heritage Area, with several restored houses alongside some of Sharjah’s main museums. Recently, a new makeover program was announced that runs into 2025 and should strengthen the area’s role in culture and leisure.
The Arts and Heritage Area and another area designed for leisure and entertainment, the Al Qasba area, where the Maraya Art Center and the Barjeel Foundation are located (see next chapter), are being developed by the SHOROOQ, the Sharjah Investment and Development company.
Contemporary Art Scene
In line with the Emir’s interest in theater, Sharjah is home to an active National Theater.
Sharjah’s annual Book Fair started in 1976.
Sharjah hosts at least seventeen museums. These, covering archaeology, natural history, science, Islam’s cultural history and contemporary art (the Sharjah Art Museum), have a character of their own. The less ostentatious style of the city and its arts projects give room for more reflection and concentration on the content.
In contemporary visual arts, the Sharjah March Meeting and the Sharjah Biennial have an international resonance. They take place in the museums and historical houses of the Heritage Area. Both are organized by the Sharjah Art Foundation, founded and presided by Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, daughter of the Emir.
The Maraya Art Centre in the Al Qasba area, where the Barjeel Foundation is located, hosts another branch of the contemporary visual arts world of Sharjah. The Barjeel Foundation is founded and led by Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, a relative of the ruling family (Al Qasimi). He is a young entrepreneur, but also a fervent patron and collector, and more recently has become an influential political commentator of Arab affairs, using mostly social media. On the Barjeel Foundation’s floor in the Maraya Art Centre, he shows parts of his own collection and invites artists and other professionals for debate.
Artistic Exchange Opportunities
The Sharjah Art Foundation is active in engaging international cooperation and exchange programs. A good opportunity to explore possibilities is the annual Sharjah March Meeting, in odd years aligned with the Sharjah Biennial. The March Meeting gathers art professionals from varied backgrounds, mostly international, around a specific theme .
The Maraya Art Center focuses on the region in the first place, but also works with artists outside the region. It is considering a program for residencies, in collaboration with the Cuadro gallery in Dubai and the Qatar Museum Authority in Doha. The Barjeel Art Foundation is eager to promote contemporary art from the region abroad, including through loans of its very relevant collection.
At least for Western travelers, visas for the UAE are on entry and for free. Most Western visitors to Sharjah will arrive through Dubai. Sharjah has its own airport, which is mainly for Air Arabia, Sharjah’s own budget carrier that operates flights to and from Mideast and South Asian destinations, and thus can be a good alternative when traveling regionally.
Taxi rides in the city are metered and start from 10 Dirham, but for the rest are reasonably priced. For any destination under the 10 Dirham range, one might consider a walk, as the traffic in the city is often congested and a taxi does not save time.
The bus to and from Dubai is useful, costing 7 Dirham and going to several central destinations in Dubai, while a taxi costs about 75 Dirham, and may not save that much time during rush hour’s traffic congestion.
When traveling by oneself, it is important to know that the city layout is much less regular than that of Dubai or Abu Dhabi, and the road indications can be confusing, so one might easily take the wrong turn.
Taxi drivers tend not to know very well the various art venues, except for the main museums. You are advised to use the maps-based direction services of this website. In the heritage area there are clear direction signs for pedestrians.
Everything in Sharjah is cheaper than in Dubai. For the price of a three star hotel in Dubai you get a four star hotel in Sharjah. But if one has plans in Dubai too, Sharjah is not a good starting point, due to travel time and transportation expenses.
There are numerous affordable restaurants offering a choice as wide as Sharjah’s multi-ethnic composition, and of course the American fast-food franchises are everywhere.
Sharjah is the only Emirate where alcohol is banned, although Western foreigners will not being checked for carrying liquor. Sharjah also maintains the strictest dressing codes and behavior laws in the UAE.
Sharjah is safe.
Written by: Neil