Thursday, September 11, 2008

Mr. Davidson is back, and praising Sharjah

The Financial Times is praising the virtues of Sharjah:
Abu Dhabi may be building a local Louvre and Guggenheim, but Sharjah has 18 museums already. They include the Sharjah Art Museum, billed as the largest gallery in the Middle East, and the Museum of Islamic Civilisation, a spectacular collection of more than 5,000 artefacts, trinkets, manuscripts and coins from across the Muslim world, housed in a restored souk on the waterfront. The Sharjah Biennial (pictured above) is the largest art event in the Arab world.

“Dubai and Abu Dhabi only have a few museums, but we have lots,” says a local woman working at the art museum, which is displaying a collection of lithographs and paintings of Middle East scenes by David Roberts, the 19th-century Scottish painter.

In addition to the many museums and galleries, visitors to Sharjah can ramble through the carefully restored and maintained parts of the old city, replete with souks and built according to the traditional rules of Arabic architecture.

“I’m quite a fan of Sharjah – it’s massively underrated,” says a British expatriate based in nearby Dubai. “It has a lot to offer culturally, and when you go to Sharjah you actually feel like you’re in the Middle East for once.”

Sharjah’s dedication to its museums and heritage has led to its being nominated Unesco’s cultural capital of the Arab world.
And who should appear in the FT report as a witness for Sharjah but Christopher Davidson (whose book has been banned by the UAE; addendum: Not banned?):
In spite of its austere reputation, Sharjah has a thriving university life. Colleges teach everything from design and international relations to architecture, business studies and engineering.

“Sharjah really was the first to try and carve out this niche of being the educational and cultural capital of the UAE,” says Mr Davidson.

Tellingly, Sheikh Sultan, ruler of Sharjah, is the chairman of the board of trustees at the American University and pays for its utilities and maintenance of the campus. [He also paid for the infrastructure and buildings although maintenance of the building interiors is paid by AUS.]

Most observers attribute Sharjah’s focus on arts, culture and education to Sheikh Sultan, who was briefly the UAE’s minister of education in the 1970s.

While many Gulf rulers are educated abroad, Sheikh Sultan went one step further and took a PhD in history at England’s Exeter University in 1985.

His doctorate thesis was a “very well-written” revisionist account of the history of 19th-century Gulf piracy, according to Mr Davidson.
What about the stories of Wahabi influence?
In 2001 it passed a law (“decency and public conduct rules and objectives”) that outlaws immodest dress and the consorting of unmarried couples. The sale, consumption or even possession of alcohol is also banned in Sharjah.

This was a departure from the situation in the 1980s, when Sharjah was a regional tourism hub, for Soviet visitors in particular, according to Christopher Davidson, a Middle East expert at Durham University in England.

Some say the move to stricter observance is a result of strings attached to money thought to have been lent by Saudi Arabia in the late 1980s. The loans were either to pay for the museum and university construction or to bail out failing banks.

Sharjah has thus earned a prudish and austere image among many foreigners.

But the severity of Islamic law there may be overstated. Women walk the streets alone and with companions. Those who wear western clothing are nearly as prevalent as those in traditional Muslim abayas.

Apart from the lack of alcohol, there is little difference between Sharjah and the rest of the UAE, says Peter Heath, chancellor of the American University of Sharjah. “We wouldn’t have a co-ed university if Sharjah really was ‘Wahabi-strict’.”

The American University is the keystone in another notable feature of Sharjah – the education sector.
Sharjah still attracts un-prudish holidaymakers from Russia and former Soviet states. I assume they travel down to neighboring Ajman for a drink. [By the way, Ajman had a 10 page advertising spread in this Sunday's NYT Magazine.] And they sun at hotel pools. I one was at a business luncheon overlooking one such pool and got an eyeful of something I'd only seen at topless Barcelona beaches -- and never elsewhere in the UAE. Admittedly, it was a wardrobe malfunction.

There is one exception to the sale of alcohol in Sharjah. The Sharjah Wanderers Sports Club was grandfathered when the emirate went dry in the 80s. As far as a ban on consumption or possession I question whether it is enforced. Muslims and non-Muslims routinely buy alcohol at the quasi-official hole-in-the-wall in Ajman and bring it back into Sharjah without a hassle (although you do hear stories of exceptions). The point is do be prudent and respectful, don't be stupid.

Suffice it to say, Sharjah should not ever be confused with Saudi Arabia.



Blogger UAE Students said...

Nice to see the recognition of AUS. It's a great university. It'll be interesting to see how it does in the Arab Universities survey on our blog.

6:00 AM  
Anonymous Dubai Entrepreneur said...

I am still in the office, an hour later waiting for an AUS graduate to show up for her job interview.

They don't teach them the value of time over there?

Needless to say, the candidate is very unlikely to get the job.

3:18 PM  

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