What are Sharjah’s geographic, historical and cultural advantages

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 six free zones, two amphitheatres, 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 manufacturing, commerce, educational institutions and culture.


Sharjah is situated in the north-eastern part of the UAE and covers 2590 sq km. Its main population centre, Sharjah City, is located some 170 km from the UAE’s capital, Abu Dhabi City, and around 27 km from Downtown Dubai. Bordering Dubai to the south, and Ajman and Umm Al Quwain to the north, Sharjah’s fast-growing urban centre forms a vibrant conurbation with its neighbours, and it is the only emirate to share borders with all six other emirates. Home to a number of commercial, manufacturing, 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 has three exclaves: Kalba, Dibba Al Hisn and Khorfakkan. The latter 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 adjacent 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.


As is the case for the rest of the UAE, Sharjah’s coastal areas tend to be hot and humid between the months of May and October, with temperatures of up to 46°C and humidity of up to 100%, while winters are usually mild, with temperatures ranging between 14°C and 23°C. For their part, the interior regions are characterised by a desert climate, with hot, dry summers and cool winters.


Archaeological discoveries of early stone tools demonstrate that human activity has existed in what is now 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’s independence.

The first interactions between this polity and European powers were fractious, marked in particular by maritime skirmishes with the British Navy. However, in 1820 a peaceful accord was reached through a treaty that saw the emirate become a protectorate of Great Britain in an effort to avoid interference from the Ottoman Empire.

In 1853 Sharjah became 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 in its history. Sharjah’s airport, constructed in 1932 to act as a staging ground for Imperial Airways flights between England and India, was the first airport in the emirates, and its runway is still in use today as a main road. This link to the outside world helped offset the decline of the pearl trade in the 1930s, as well as the subsequent contraction of maritime trade, stemming from the silting up of Sharjah Creek.

By the 1970s the emirate had entered 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. 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 grown in both population and prosperity in the intervening years, 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, data 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. Some 91% of the total population live in Sharjah City. Unofficial estimates released in January 2021 suggest a total population of 1.7m, equivalent to 3.1% expansion since 2019. The emirate has recorded steep population growth over 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, however, where females outnumber males at a ratio of 51:49. The emirate’s age profile also skews relatively young, with a median age of 32.6. At the national level, the unemployment rate stood at around 2.4% in 2019, indicating that the UAE economy operates at close to its full productive capacity; emirate-level employment statistics for Sharjah were not available at the time of writing. South-Asian countries account for a large proportion of the expatriate population, with India, Pakistan and Bangladesh among the most common countries of origin.

Many Sharjah residents commute to the neighbouring emirate of Dubai to work. This is largely attributable to the more affordable real estate and lower cost of living in Sharjah, as well as good road connections between the two emirates. While Sharjah’s real estate segment has benefitted from this pattern, it also causes substantial traffic congestion during peak times – namely on Al Ittihad Road, which connects the two emirates.

However, a series of construction initiatives have been designed to help ease congestion on Sharjah-Dubai motorways. 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 – partially opened in September 2018. Other plans include opening a dedicated truck lane on the E611 highway, limiting truck traffic to certain times and a possible fourth inter-emirate motorway.

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.


The discovery of oil in Sharjah resulted in an economic boom, but even at its early stages, the emirate’s leadership understood the importance of developing 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. As such, despite the negative impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on GDP in 2020, the emirate’s economic growth is poised to recover quickly, with international credit ratings agency Standard & Poor’s forecasting annual average GDP growth of 4% in 2021 and 2% over the 2022-24 period, led by the non-hydrocarbons sector (see Economy chapter).

Approximately 96.7% of economic activity was derived from non-oil sectors in 2020, with the largest sectors being wholesale and retail trade, and the repair of motor vehicles and motorcycles (21.7%); manufacturing (17%); real estate (9.6%); and financial services and construction (8.5% each). All sectors contracted in 2020, with the exception of agriculture, forestry and fishing, which grew marginally by 2%; and electricity, gas and water supply, and waste management, which grew modestly by 1%.


Over the past decade Sharjah has implemented a number of initiatives aimed at developing the emirate’s domestic economy and encouraging greater levels of 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, better known as Shurooq – an independent body that oversees social, cultural, environmental and economic development in line with Sharjah’s Islamic identity. As the only emirate in the UAE with ports on both the Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, as well as the broader country’s geostrategic location between Europe and Asia, Sharjah is well positioned to be a central player in international trade and logistics. In addition to building competitive underlying transport infrastructure – from Khorfakkan port on the Gulf of Oman, to Sharjah International Airport – the emirate has worked to develop a broad network of free zones and industrial zones to solidify its position as an exporter and re-exporter. As part of its ongoing focus on industrial development, Sharjah has established a total of four free zones since the first two – Hamriyah Free Zone and Sharjah Airport International Free Zone – were opened in 1995. The four other free zones are Sharjah Publishing City, Sharjah Media City, Sharjah Healthcare City, and Sharjah Research Technology and Innovation Park.

Tourism is another key element of the emirate’s ongoing economic diversification drive. Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority’s Vision 2021 initiative aimed to attract 10m annual visitors by that year – a goal which was postponed to 2022 due to the pandemic. 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 an increase in both public and private investment in the tourism sector and supporting infrastructure, with more than $400m worth of new hotel investments announced in 2017 and a $408m expansion of Sharjah International Airport (SIA) that is expected to bring annual passenger-handling capacity from 8m to more than 20m by 2025.

Many of these efforts continued despite the pandemic, including the $10.9m East Expansion project at SIA, which saw the construction of four gates, nine waiting areas and facilities for those with reduced mobility completed in October 2020. As has been the case around the world, however, various goals set by the tourism sector have been revised in light of the pandemic. Nonetheless, as soon as the tourism sector as a whole recovers, it will continue to be one of the main drivers of economic expansion.

Although the pandemic impacted the UAE, its cases and fatalities as a proportion of the total population have remained within manageable levels, with approximately 645,000 cases and 1880 fatalities recorded as of mid-July 2021.


Along with economic development, Sharjah’s leadership has fostered a strong cultural identity in the emirate – an achievement that was recognised in 1998, when UNESCO named it the Cultural Capital of the Arab Region. 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 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 15th edition of the event, originally planned to take place in March 2021, is now scheduled for March 2022, under the thematic title “Thinking Historically in the Present”.

As an indicator of the emirate’s long-standing focus on promoting culture and the arts, Expo Centre Sharjah was established in 1977 as the first trade fair in the country; the event 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 cultural attraction in the emirate is the Sharjah Light Festival, a nightly art exhibit that takes place during the month of February and sees a number of Emirati and foreign artists make use of the latest graphics and lighting techniques for their installations. The 2020 festival took place across 19 locations, including some of the emirate’s most prominent buildings, such as the 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. Due to the pandemic, the regularity and accessibility of cultural activities have been temporarily impacted.


Sharjah is a constitutional monarchy and one of the seven members of the UAE, a federation of hereditary monarchies. That being the case, the highest level of government in the country 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 – which is 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 moved online following the opening of the Sharjah eGovernment Portal. With this development, local citizens and residents are able to access popular services, such as passport issuance, parking permits, home care services for seniors, and requests for assistance with marital and familial disputes.

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