18 April 2004

A visit to Al Sharjah

The UAE is a made up of 7 emirates and Al Sharjah is a small one located right next to Dubai along the coast. As it was the weekend, and we had no plans, we took a drive there.

Al Sharjah is considered something of a cultural centre of the UAE (named Arab Cultural Capital in 1998 by UNESCO) with a handful of museums to its name. It has also developed into a dormitory town for Dubai for all those who can't afford the high rents here. It has great potential with a huge amount of building work going on, specially along its lovely coastline. Unfortunately Sharjah's government is not keeping up, which means that many apartment blocks are empty for years for lack of an electricity connection. Today's Gulf News quotes the local electricity authority as saying that it "must keep to its schedule of growth and cannot make exceptions for new apartment buildings springing up regularly". In the meantime rents are increasing all the time.

We had no map and no plan, so we were surprised when we ended up at the Al Mahatah Museum of Aviation. From the outside it didn't look much, just a low-level block and a control tower surrounded by modern housing.


On the inside we discovered a gem of a museum housed in the old Sharjah airport building. There was a huge airy hangar with old passenger and cargo planes, some suspended from the ceiling; an exhibition of photos and equipment explaining the running of the airport and a great archive film of passenger air travel in the 30's. And strangely, an exhibition on the history of flight from the Museums of Wales!?!


The documentation was all very colonial and Tally-ho, old chap!, from when the Brits considered this part of the World desolate but strategically important. In those days it only took 4 days to get here from London, slightly less convenient than the morning flight on Emirates nowadays. Then, Sharjah was the main hub in the area, not Dubai or Abu Dhabi, as it was the biggest trading port. Sharjah still provides almost half the UAE's industrial production, but the banning of alcohol in the mid-90's meant that Dubai quickly overtook it as a tourism and conferencing destination.

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