Sharjah was the first port to develop global ambitions in the 1970s, and the first of the Emirates that went through a boom-and-bust cycle. In 1987, the Emirate almost went bankrupt, burdened as it was with almost 1 billion dollars debt, allegedly due to the Sheikh’s extravagant construction projects, and fueled by a speculative bubble. This led to a coup attempt (the contender was allegedly backed by Abu Dhabi), which the profligate ruler survived thanks to the support of Dubai’s rulers. Sheikh Sultan, who became ruler in 1972, still rules today. Dubai, Abu Dhabi and, apparently, Saudi Arabia bailed out the Emirate, which toned down its ambitions. Although developing with a respectable growth rate, the Emirate of Sharjah has since been overshadowed in most regards by its neighbors Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

The bustling port city of Sharjah, teeming with drunken sailors from all over the world, became much quieter as alcohol was banned. Visiting revelers quickly relocated to Dubai or adjacent Ajman. In 2001, the Emirate adopted decency laws promulgating strict dress codes, which some say was because of Saudi loan conditions.

From Sharjah’s port, dhows still ply the trade routes between the Indian subcontinent and East Africa; there is also a huge car re-export business; in the early years of post-Taliban Afghanistan, the country was rife with second-hand Toyota’s from Japan with Sharjah export license plates. Furthermore, the city serves as a dormitory city for Dubai, as rents are considerably lower than in Dubai.

Performance with 8 drummers in the historic city of Sharjah, organized by Tarek Atoui for the opening of the Sharjah Biennial 2013

Performance with 8 drummers in the historic city of Sharjah, organized by Tarek Atoui for the opening of the Sharjah Biennial 2013. Photo by the author

What is most surprising about Sharjah is its cultural life. It is often mentioned that Sharjah is home to seventeen museums, which earned the Emirate the UNESCO designation ‘Cultural Capital of the Arab World’ in 1998. Cultural critics from the West praise Sharjah for its cultural policies, which are usually counterpoised against Dubai’s glitzy commercial glamour. In fact, these seventeen museums are not especially thrilling from an artistic point of view, although they may sometimes host interesting exhibitions and performances.

What makes Sharjah a culturally vibrant place is its Biennial, the March meetings, and the year-long program of the Sharjah Art Foundation that includes performances, screenings and exhibitions in one of the city’s many cultural venues. The heritage area where most of these venues are, is a pleasantly rebuilt district of downtown Sharjah. The small focal point for arts that was created in Al Qasba, with the Barjeel Foundation, the Maraya Art Center and the Shelter art café, is the other place to go to for contemporary culture in Sharjah. The level of programming by the Sharjah Art Foundation and Barjeel is comparable to that of well-established arts organizations in the West.

The driving forces behind Sharjah’s contemporary art scene are two distantly related Qasimis: Sheikha Hoor, an artist herself and a daughter of the current ruler, has been at the helm of the Sharjah Art Foundation since 2003. She has attracted many talented artists and curators from the rest of the world – such as Yuko Hasegawa from the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, who will direct the Biennial of 2013 – to help her set up the multifaceted programs of the Foundation. The other is Sultan Sooud, owner of the Barjeel collector and initiator of the Maraya Art Center. He has now become famous as a news commentator, including articles in the international press [link pdf].

In fact, the real driving force behind Sharjah’s cultural policies seems to be the ruling Sheikh’s love for culture, shared with some of his family members. It does not seem to be the result of a strategic decision about how to position the Emirate within the region, although that has become the pleasant result. In any case, compared to Abu Dhabi’s focus on infrastructure and Dubai’s focus on the art market, Sharjah has the enviable reputation of focusing on content.