Accounting for just over 3% of the territory of the UAE, Sharjah is one of the federation’s smaller emirates, and yet it has long played an important cultural and economic role in the region. Home to three free zones, 16 museums and a number of annual festivals that attract visitors from around the world, the emirate continues to punch above its weight in the realms of commerce and culture.
Situated in the north-eastern part of the UAE, the emirate of Sharjah covers 2590 sq km of territory, 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 to the north, this fast-growing urban centre forms a vibrant conurbation with its two neighbours, and is home to the emirate’s principal commercial, educational and cultural institutions.
Sharjah is unique within the UAE in that its territory lies adjacent to both the Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, on which it owns three enclaves – Kalba, Dibba Al Hisn and Khor Fakkan. The latter is surrounded by the emirate of Fujairah and provides Sharjah with a major east coast port in the form of the Khorfakkan Container Terminal – the only natural deep-sea port in the region and one of the major container ports in the UAE.
The interior of the emirate is dominated by the important 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 exclave of Nahwa, a village located inside the Omani enclave 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 of between 14°C and 23°C. The interior experiences a desert climate, with hot and dry summers and cool winters.
Archaeological finds of early stone tools have shown that human activity has existed in the territory of Sharjah for around 120,000 years. The emirate’s modern history, however, began in 1727 when the Al Qasimi tribe gained control of the area and declared Sharjah to be independent.
The first interactions of this new 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 an expanding Ottoman Empire.
By 1853 Sharjah had become a member of the Trucial States, the collective name given to the emirates, and during the late 19th and early 20th century enjoyed a settled existence as a significant pearl fishing port. The importance of the emirate during this period is demonstrated by the fact that between 1823 and 1954,Sharjah was the base for Britain’s only political representative on the Trucial Coast. 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 to offset the decline of the pearl trade in the 1930s, and the later contraction of the sea trade, a result of the silting up of Sharjah Creek.
By the 1970s the emirate was entering a new phase of development, joining the UAE as a founding member in 1971 and gaining a new leader in 1972 with the succession of Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi. In the 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 bin Mohammed Al Qasimi the emirate has since grown in prosperity while maintaining strong links to its cultural heritage.
The discovery of oil resulted in an economic boom, but even at this early stage the emirate’s leadership understood the importance of establishing a non-oil economy. The Sharjah Chamber of Commerce and Industry was created in that same year to broaden the range of economic activity taking place in the emirate, and over the subsequent decades it oversaw the development of a range of industries, including petrochemicals, textiles and leather, basic non-metals, foodstuff and wood industries. Thus, despite the challenges associated with today’s subdued oil price, economic growth remains robust, with Standard & Poor’s forecasting an average growth rate of 2.4% in 2017-20, a level of confidence reflected by the enthusiastic response to the emirate’s second issuance of a dollar-denominated Islamic bond in January 2016.
The four largest sectors in Sharjah’s modern economy are real estate and business services, accounting for approximately 21% of economic activity; manufacturing with 16%; mining, quarrying and energy on 12%; and wholesale and retail trade representing 12%. 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 and the establishment in 2009 of the Investment and Development Authority – an independent body mandated to oversee the social, cultural, environmental and economic development of Sharjah in line with its Islamic identity.
In January 2016 Sharjah established its most recent economic free zone, Sharjah Media City. The new zone, which comprises a tax-free city with modern infrastructure and services, is the third in the emirate, after Hamriyah Free Zone and Sharjah Airport Free Zone, both established in 1995. Between them, the existing zones are home to around 13,500 companies from 157 countries, engaged in a wide range of economic activity from petroleum and plastics through to food processing.
As well as its economic development, Sharjah’s leadership has also fostered a strong cultural identity in the emirate, an achievement which was recognised in 2014 when it was named as Islamic Culture Capital 2014 by the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. The city is home to 16 museums, focused on disciplines as disparate as Islamic civilisation, sea life and vintage cars. Sharjah also hosts the regionally influential Sharjah Art Foundation, which since 2009 has brought a broad range of contemporary art and cultural programmes to the communities of Sharjah, the UAE and beyond. The Expo Centre Sharjah, meanwhile, was first established in 1977 as the first trade fair in the country, and was moved to its current location in 2002. The 128,000-sq-metre exhibit hall is home to an annual book fair which typically attracts hundreds of local and international publishers, thousands of titles and leading authors – headlined in 2015 by Ben Okri.
Each February, members of public across the emirate form the backdrop of the Sharjah Light Festival, a nightly art exhibit which sees a number of local and international artists deploy the latest graphics and lighting techniques. The 2016 festival was the biggest to date, taking place over 23 locations including some of the emirate’s most prominent buildings, such as Al Noor Mosque, University City Hall and Al Majaz Amphitheatre.
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 made up of the seven emirs of Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Fujairah, Sharjah, Dubai, Ras Al Khaimah and Umm Al Quwain. Although the positions of president of the UAE and the prime ministership are electable by the 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.
Government at the local level consists of the Sharjah municipality, established in 1927 but granted its modern mandate in 1971. Its operations encompass public health, agricultural policy, and management and infrastructural engineering support.
Many functions of local government have moved online with the opening of the Government of Sharjah ePortal. With this development, Sharjah’s 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.