Accounting for just over 3% of the territory of the UAE, Sharjah is the federation’s third-largest emirate, and has long played an important cultural and economic role in the region. Home to seven existing or developing free zones, around 30 museums and various annual festivals that attract visitors from around the world, the emirate continues to punch above its weight in terms of commerce and culture.
Situated in the north-eastern part of the UAE, the emirate of Sharjah covers 2590 sq km, making it the third largest in the federation. Its main population centre, the city of Sharjah, is located some 170 km from the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi. Bordering Dubai to the south and Ajman and Umm Al Quwain to the north, this fast-growing urban centre forms a vibrant conurbation with its two neighbours and is the only emirate in the UAE to border all six other emirates.
Home to a number of principal commercial, educational and cultural institutions, Sharjah is unique as an emirate in that it is adjacent to both the Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, on which it owns three exclaves: Kalba, Dibba Al Hisn and Khorfakkan. The latter is surrounded by the emirate Fujairah and possesses a major east coast port in the form of the Khorfakkan Container Terminal – the only natural deepwater port in the region and one of the UAE’s major container ports. The interior of the emirate is dominated by the oasis town of Al Dhaid, where water channelled from the nearby Hajar mountains irrigates extensive date palm plantations. Other territories owned by the emirate include the second-order exclave of Nahwa – a village located inside the Omani exclave of Madha – and the Gulf island of Sir Abu Nuayr.
Like the rest of the UAE, Sharjah’s coastal areas tend to be hot and humid between May and October, with temperatures up to 46°C and humidity of up to 100%, while winters are usually mild, with temperatures between 14°C and 23°C. The interior regions experience a desert climate, with hot, dry summers and cool winters.
Archaeological findings of early stone tools have shown that human activity has existed in Sharjah for around 130,000 years. The emirate’s modern history, however, began in 1727 when the Al Qasimi tribe gained control of the area and declared Sharjah independent. The first interactions of this polity with European powers were fractious, marked especially by maritime skirmishes with the British Navy. However, a peaceful accord was reached through an 1820 treaty that saw the emirate become a protectorate of Great Britain in a bid to avoid interference from the Ottoman Empire.
By 1853 Sharjah had become a member of the Trucial States, the collective name given to the emirates at that time, and during the late 19th and early 20th centuries it enjoyed a settled existence as a significant pearl fishing port. Between 1823 and 1954 Sharjah was the base for Britain’s only political representative on the Trucial Coast, demonstrating its importance to the colonial power.
The emirate also emerged as an important transport hub during this period. The airport, constructed in 1932 to act as a staging post for Imperial Airways flights between England and India, was the first in the emirates, and its runway is still in use as a main road today. This link to the outside world helped offset the decline of the pearl trade in the 1930s, as well as the later contraction of the maritime trade, which was a result of the silting up of Sharjah Creek.
By the 1970s the emirate was entering a new phase of development, having joined the UAE as a founding member in 1971 and gained a new leader in 1972 with the succession of Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi. In that same year Sharjah struck oil in the Mubarek field, located 80 km offshore, and within two years the emirate was producing 35,000 barrels per day. Under the stewardship of Sheikh Sultan, the emirate has since grown in population and prosperity while at the same time maintaining strong links to its cultural heritage.
The latest official census figures show that Sharjah is home to a population that is young, urban, employed or studying, and predominantly expatriate. Based on a census carried out in 2015, figures released by the Department of Statistics and Community Development in January 2017 show that over 1.4m people live in the emirate, of which 88% are expatriates and 91% live in Sharjah City. Unofficial estimates released in January 2018 that account for the growth since the 2015 census put the 2018 total at 1.53m. The emirate has recorded steep population growth in the past 20 years, with an increase of 77% in a single decade, from 793,573 in 2005 to 1.41m in 2015.
The expatriate population is more than two-thirds male, outnumbering the female expatriate population by more than 400,000. The gender ratio is much more balanced among the Emirati population, where females outnumber males on a ratio of 51:49. The age profile is also very young, with 1.1m residents under the age of 40. A substantial 76% of all residents over the age of 15 are in full-time employment, while 5% are full-time students and 6% are “unemployed, retired, unable to work, self-supporting or carry out domestic work only”. While exact figures for Sharjah are not known, South-Asian countries account for a large proportion of the expatriate population, with India, Pakistan and Bangladesh among the most-common countries of origin.
Large numbers of Sharjah residents commute to neighbouring Dubai to work. This is largely due to cheaper real estate and costs of living in Sharjah, as well as good road connections between the two emirates. However, while Sharjah’s real estate segment has benefitted from this demographic, the phenomenon also causes substantial traffic congestion during peak times, namely on Al Ittihad Road, which connects the two emirates. A series of initiatives should ease congestion on Sharjah-Dubai highways. For instance, the Al Budaiya Bridge – a seven-lane, 4-km bridge and motorway that has the capacity to handle an estimated 17,700 cars per hour – is set to open in August 2018. Other plans include opening a dedicated truck lane on the E611 highway, limiting truck traffic to certain times and consideration of a fourth inter-emirate highway.
Language & Religion
In line with the rest of the country, the official language of Sharjah is Arabic, though English is spoken widely and is a common feature of business communication and public life. The emirate’s large South-Asian population also means that Hindi and Urdu are widely spoken among a sizeable portion of the expatriate demographic.
While Islam is the official religion of the UAE, religious freedom is enshrined in the constitution, and this is reflected in the diversity of religions practised by the large expatriate population. Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs and members of other religious communities are all present. Due to the importance given to its Islamic heritage, the emirate takes a conservative stance on certain social issues. Norms of dress are marginally more conservative in Sharjah than in neighbouring Dubai, for example, and it is the only emirate to have banned the sale, possession and consumption of alcohol.
The discovery of oil resulted in an economic boom, but even at its early stages, the emirate’s leadership understood the importance of establishing a non-oil economy. The Sharjah Chamber of Commerce and Industry was created in 1970 to broaden the range of economic activities taking place in the emirate. Over subsequent decades it oversaw the development of a diversified industrial base including petrochemicals, textiles and leather, basic non-metals, foodstuffs and wood industries.
Thus, despite the challenges of the subdued oil prices, economic growth remains robust, with Standard & Poor’s forecasting average GDP growth in real terms of 2.4% over the 2017-20 period, a level of confidence reflected by the enthusiastic response to the emirate’s issuance of its largest dollar-denominated Islamic bond in March 2018.
The four largest sectors are manufacturing, accounting for approximately 16.9% of GDP; real estate with 13%; wholesale and retail trade with 12.1%; and financial services with 10.3%. Over the past decade the emirate has implemented a number of initiatives aimed at developing the domestic economy and encouraging inward investment, including start-up schemes for small and medium-sized enterprises as well as the establishment in 2009 of the Sharjah Investment and Development Authority – an independent body that oversees Sharjah’s social, cultural, environmental and economic development in line with its Islamic identity.
Furthermore, in January 2016 the government established Sharjah Media City, a tax-free zone with modern infrastructure and services. This was the third free zone in the emirate, after Hamriyah Free Zone and Sharjah Airport International Free Zone, which were both established in 1995. The zones are collectively home to around 13,500 companies from 157 countries, engaged in a range of economic activities, from petroleum and plastics to food processing. In October 2017 the authorities inaugurated a fourth free zone, Sharjah Publishing City, providing 40,000 sq metres of space for publishers and related firms (see Economy chapter).
Tourism is another key element of the diversification programme, with the Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority’s Vision 2021 initiative aiming to attract 10m visitors by 2021. The strategy, launched in 2015, seeks to build the emirate into a top regional destination for family tourism by investing in a range of ecotourism and cultural attractions. The initiative has contributed to a rise in both public and private investment in the sector, with more than $400m in new hotel investments announced in 2017 and a $408m expansion to Sharjah International Airport expected to bring annual capacity from 8m to over 20m passengers.
As well as its economic development, Sharjah’s leadership has also fostered a strong cultural identity in the emirate, an achievement that was recognised in 1998, when UNESCO named it Cultural Capital of the Arab World. In 2014 it held the title of Islamic Culture Capital from the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.
The Sharjah Museums Authority oversees the operation of 16 museums, including the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation, the Sharjah Archaeology Museum and the Sharjah Heritage Museum. Many of these are built into Sharjah City’s Heritage Area, a district in the centre of the city characterised by buildings that have been preserved or restored to reflect the region’s traditional architecture.
This emphasis on heritage is complemented by the emirate’s long-established role as a centre for arts and culture. Since 2009 the Sharjah Art Foundation has brought a broad range of contemporary art and cultural programmes to the communities of Sharjah, the UAE and the wider Gulf region.
The emirate is also home to the Sharjah Biennial, a contemporary art event inaugurated in 1993 that has grown to become a fixture of the Middle East’s cultural calendar and one of the most respected contemporary art events in the region, drawing more than 90,000 attendees in 2013. The 14th edition of the event will take place under the thematic title “Leaving the Echo Chamber” from March 2019.
As part of the longer history of promoting culture and the arts, the Expo Centre Sharjah was established in 1977 as the first trade fair in the country, and it was moved to its current location in 2002. The 128,000-sq-metre exhibition hall is home to an annual book fair that typically attracts hundreds of local and international publishers, thousands of titles and leading authors. Another annual attraction is the Sharjah Light Festival, a nightly art exhibit that takes place in February and sees a number of local and international artists making use of the latest graphics and lighting techniques. The 2018 festival, run under the theme “Culture in Sharjah”, took place across 18 locations, including some of the emirate’s most-prominent buildings, such as Al Noor Mosque, University City Hall and Khalid Lagoon.
Sharjah is one of the most pedestrian-friendly emirates in the UAE. Public spaces, such as Al Qasba, Flag Island and Noor Island, are popular among residents, while traditional Gulf architecture can be found at the Heart of Sharjah in Sharjah City, thanks to a restoration and preservation project that was funded by the Sharjah Art Foundation.
Sharjah is a constitutional monarchy and one of the seven members of the UAE, a federation of hereditary monarchies. As such, the highest level of government is the Federal Supreme Council, which is made up of the rulers of Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Fujairah, Sharjah, Dubai, Ras Al Khaimah and Umm Al Quwain. Although the president and prime minister of the UAE are electable by the Federal Supreme Council, custom dictates that the ruler of Abu Dhabi holds the presidency, while Dubai’s ruler fills the post of prime minister. Since 2006 a half-elected Federal National Council made up of 40 members drawn from all seven emirates has played a consultative role in government.
At the local level, Sharjah municipality is responsible for providing civic services. First established in 1927, the municipality was granted its modern mandate in 1971. Many of its functions have recently moved online with the opening of the Sharjah eGovernment Portal. With this development, local citizens and residents are able to access popular services, such as passport issuance, booking of car parking, home care services for seniors, and requests for assistance with marriage and familial disputes.
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