Culture, Camels & Downpours – The New Appeal Of Sharjah
Phil Hopkins, Arts & Travel Editor
“It rains all day inside,” said the man with the dark complexion, “but you will only get wet if you move too quickly, so don’t,” he advised, walking our small group out of the sunny building reception and towards a heavy door.
The curiosity was too much for this Englishman who seemingly spent much of his life discussing weather over breakfast, lunch, tea and using it as a conversation starter at high-blown networking events in and around Yorkshire.
Inside a bright light pierced the darkness, shining directly through what appeared to be the most horrendous downpour, only we were in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the temperature outside was a little shy of 30 degrees and I was wearing shorts and factor 50!
But this ‘installation’ – brought to the UAE by the Sharjah Art Foundation – is all about raising the culture bar in this, the third largest of the UAE’s seven emirates.
The Rain Room is Random International’s immersive installation, inviting visitors to walk into a downpour of continuous rain, however, if you move carefully, motion sensors above detect your movement, momentarily switch off the rain and prevent even a drop of water from touching your head – at least that’s the theory!
Lying between the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea, Sharjah – the only Emirate with two coasts - is widely regarded as the Islamic world’s capital of culture and was officially dubbed as such in 2014. It has also come to appreciate the value of art and all things historical in attracting new visitors to its shores.
And it appears to be playing a smart game in the marketing ‘positioning’ stakes, as tourist officials subtly differentiate it from UAE competitors like Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Gone are the days when Sharjah was happy to be ‘part’ of a trip to one of the more well-known Emirates. Now, it has set its sights on becoming a stand-alone destination and, to that end, has gone into battle for the tourist pound.
Dubai is the Middle East’s principal shopping and ‘fun’ capital with the likes of Dubai Parks and Resorts offering itself up as the Arab world’s response to Disneyland, whilst Abu Dhabi has opted for Ferrari World and water parks whilst taking care to invest nigh on a billion dollars into its new, breath-taking Louvre Museum.
However, with such competition on its doorstep, Sharjah would be foolish to focus on the same type of attractions, and has been smart enough to not only invest in aspects of its cultural heritage, but to also use the desert as a source for much of its tourist inspiration.
Rather than systematically reclaiming every square inch of sand, as other Emirates seem to be intent on doing, Sharjah is, in part, working with its natural surroundings – and its past - to create something special, different and with the potential to give it stand-alone destination appeal.
In the heart of the city, somewhat appropriately, is the aptly named Heart of Sharjah, the largest and most ambitious historical preservation and restoration project to take place in the UAE region.
Planned over a 15-year period, it will be under construction until 2025 and seeks to revitalise the heritage district as a vibrant cultural destination by uncovering its distinguished past, restoring historical buildings, constructing new structures following classical architectural styles and transforming them into hotels, restaurants, cafes, art galleries and markets.
As the new ‘heritage’ district emerges one cannot help but eye the large high-rise blocks that still surround large parts of it.
“All of them will be demolished,” smiles our host. “I was re-housed by the government but they gave me a new home on the airport road and a piece of commercial land which they helped us develop. Our family is happy,” she beamed.
And, in this money-is-no-object society, that is the plan, build it and they will come. With the discovery of oil all those decades ago came a steady flow of the precious black stuff which, in turn, took Arab cash flow to new heights, giving them the apparent ability to spend with abandon.
In fact a lone petrol pump still takes pride of place at Al Faya Lodge, a luxury five bedroom hotel, set against the backdrop of Mleiha’s desert landscape and now part of the Sharjah Collection.
Two letters adorn the now brown coloured artefact, ‘BP’. The hotel’s head of marketing smiles, proudly announcing: “This was one of the first petrol pumps in the UAE”. Nearby sits an equally incongruous structure.
“That was a former clinic but is now a five-bedroomed luxury boutique hotel,” she says, whilst the old grocery store, just across from the rusting petrol pump, is the hotel restaurant. Two camels walk by, meandering up the highway, as if to provide a momentary reminder that we really are in the desert and that Bedouins do not just exist in a movie called Lawrence of Arabia!
Al Faya Lodge is a 45 minute drive from Sharjah centre, giving visitors a chance to escape the fast-paced hustle and bustle of city life, thanks to its ‘back-to-nature’ offering with rooms, rest, swimming and spa treatments in the heart of the desert.
Close by Mleiha also boasts one of the richest archaeological collections in the emirate. A number of burial sites have been unearthed there and the discovery of 125,000 year-old stone hand axes in 2011 suggests that early humans may have left Africa 20,000 years earlier than previously believed. It is also a great place to enjoy the excitement of a desert safari!
Sharjah really does evoke its own sense of culture, a refreshing change from Dubai and Abu Dhabi which have defined themselves by importing art and creating, from scratch, big, brash, man-made attractions designed to deliver the wow factor; Sharjah is a little subtler.
Back in the city Al Noor Island and its Butterfly House provide peaceful respite from the sun drenched sidewalks, thanks to a gloriously appealing setting of lush trees just across the bridge which effortlessly spans Khalid Lagoon.
A few hundred metres in the other direction the iconic Ottoman-style Al Noor Mosque with its calligraphic inscriptions from the Holy Quran and intricately decorated domes, arches and pillars, opens its doors to curious visitors eager to learn about Islam and the Muslim faith.
And, a short ride away, is the city’s ornate Museum of Islamic Civilization which tells the historic story of the region whilst explaining the central principles of the Islamic faith.
With a population nearing 1.5m Sharjah has been earmarked as World Book Capital in 2019, further enhancing its reputation as a cultural centre.
However, it has also been careful to deliver a few ‘big ticket’ items to keep itself in the international limelight, cases in point being the F1 Powerboat and Aquabike World Championships, both key elements of Sharjah’s World Championship Week held every December.
Whether it is a visit to the Aquarium and Maritime Museum, a desire to learn about the region’s aviation history at Al Mahatta, the UAE’s first airport but now a museum, or a leisurely Lebanese lunch at the Shababeek Restaurant on Al Qasba waterfront……
…..Sharjah city has plenty to offer as the understated but cultured mistress of the UAE.
Meanwhile Kalba City on the east coast is slightly more rugged in its offering.
There are pedalos on Al Rafisah Dam…
………..the Kalba Birds of Prey Centre and the splendour of Kingfisher Lodge, opened in Spring 2018 and now one of the first eco-tourism property developments in the United Arab Emirates.
Sharjah offers an eclectic mix of history, culture, warm friendly people and year-round sunshine and, whether it is majestic mountains, rolling sand dunes, beaches or a diverse array of museums and alternative attractions that are your penchant, it won’t be long before Sharjah soon stands shoulder to shoulder with its more powerful neighbours, but its mode of dress will be a little more sophisticated and its tone of language a little less brash!
Culture, Camels & Downpours – The New Appeal Of Sharjah, 2nd January 2019, 10:27 AM