Surprising Sharjah – Emirate in the Gulf

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The Emirate Sharjah is the quiet brother to its glittering and glamorous brother next door – Dubai.

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The Emirate Sharjah is the quiet brother to its glittering and glamorous brother next door – Dubai. It is far more down to Earth, has no heavy liability on luggage to carry, and is the only Emirate to have land on both the Arabian Gulf Coast and the Gulf of Oman.

As a result of its strategic location, Sharjah always has been a distinct destination for commerce in the region, where people have relied on trade and seafaring for thousands of years in history. It has 2 Free zones, with a total area of 28 million square meters, has 3 enormous ports of altogether 49.5 million square meters, and is home of the Gulf’s first low-cost airline, Air Arabia, which was established in 2003. But then again, none of this should be surprising since the very first airport in the Arabian Gulf opened in 1932 in Sharjah.

Yes, things are different in Sharjah.

Thanks to the vision of Dr. Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qassimi, the Ruler of the Emirate Sharjah, Member of the Supreme Council of the GCC, Sharjah has one of best universities in GCC and Arab World. Located in University City on a total area of 11.1 kilometers, the American University of Sharjah (AUS) hosts over 22,000 students. It is a non-profit, independent institution formed on the American model, offering 25 major and 13 Master’s degrees through colleges of architecture, design, engineering, etc.

Dr. Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qassimi, Founder and President of the American University, and who holds an incredible array of Doctorates and Bachelors, could easily enter the Guinness Book of Records, as he holds a Doctor in Philosophy from University of Exeter, UK; Doctor in Political Geography by Durham University, UK; and various Honorary Doctorates from around the globe, such as Canada, Germany, Edinburgh, Malaysia, and Russia, just to name a few.

Being a recipient of endless high ranking awards – among them the Gold Medal from the Union of Arab Universities, Jordan; and the Human Right Gold Medal of UNESCO, to name just to name a few – he has also authored numerous important scholar texts and plays being translated into Urdu, French, English, German, and Spanish.

His Highness, who holds a Bachelor of Science in Agricultural Engineering from Cairo University, has recently intervened to help to restore Egypt’s precious cultural heritage at the Scientific Institute near Tahir Square in Cairo where fire ruined more than 192,000 books and manuscripts, and he offered to rebuild the Institute, explaining, “What happens to Egypt affects us, and this is part of giving back, especially from the people of Sharjah, who were taught by the Egyptians until they [have] completed their ways to universities, and whatever we do, it will not be enough.”

The American University of Sharjah opened in 1997 and long before other projects in the GCC region followed. AUS also played a pioneering role in the creation of “UAE Gender & Women’s Studies Consortiums” and is the first co-education university in the Gulf. Again, not surprising, since in 1942, Sharjah became the first Emirate to provide education for women.

Last month, the American University of Sharjah paid a great tribute to the empowerment of women by hosting the first AIWF – ARAB International Women’s Forum Conference (last month) with the theme “Emerging Economies, Emerging Leaderships: Arab Women and Youth as Drivers of Change.”

Among the keynote speakers were Dr. (Mrs.) Shaikha Al-Maskari from Abu Dhabi; Dr. Shaikha Al Maskari, Chairperson, Al Maskari Holding and Tricon Group; HE Dr. Hamed Luqmann, Director General, Arab Labor Organization, Egypt; Dr. Afnan Al-Shuaiby, Secretary-General and CEO, Arab-British Chamber of Commerce, UK; and Dr. Nasser H. Saidi, Chief Economist of the DIFC & Executive Director of the Hawkamah-Institute for Corporate Governance, UAE.

This all started 11 years ago at dining table in London, where AIWF (Arabian International Women’s Forum) was established as an independent not-for-profit organization by Founder Chairmen Mrs. Haifa Fahoum Al Kaylani. AIWF was crowned this year under the Patronage of HH Sheikh Dr. Sultan Bin Mohammed Al Qassimi, the Ruler of Sharjah, who said at the opening ceremony: “Perhaps for the first time in many centuries, our art of the world is in a ‘must change’ dynamic to include the coming of age generation in productive employment. Support women for effective changes. We are delighted to see the quintessence and empowering women in a new Arab Renaissance.”

“In our part of the Middle East, the UAE has a rapidly and diversifying private sector. The public and private sectors have partnered to create assertive programs for university graduates to become ‘job-ready.’ We applaud the innovative steps put into practice by the Arab International Womens’ Forum 11 years ago,” said His Highness on the 2-day conference, which hosted around 200 participants.

AIWF Chairman Mrs. Al Kaylani said: “For the lasting Arab Awakening, we call for a new revolution: a real shift in the mindset of the region to ensure that women can play a vital and equal rule in business and in politics. Only then, the Middle East and North Africa achieve their true potential and become the next emerging powerhouse.”

Ambassador Mrs. Brigitta Holst, Director of the Swedish Institute of Alexandria, Egypt, said it needs a concept of quality – the first path being education, equal rights, and eternal education in Arab countries – not an intellectual revolution,” adding in fluent Arabic, “Sweden stands ready for Arab women.” She continued: “We are investing in women to make changes possible. The system now is broken – we see women as high providers of return of investment.”

Dr. Peter Heath, Chancellor of the American University Sharjah, said in a press conference: “Sharjah developed institutions of higher education, research, and cultural enhancement for young women and men made to meet the future armed with expertise and resilient intellectual foundations, and youth are given the essential tools, training, and hands-on experience that will ensure that they [are] work-force ready.

“Women entrepreneurs have begun about 30 percent of the new businesses in Sharjah. Across the UAE, women have arisen as CEOs or executives and now serve as ministers of government. Yet, the UAE and the GCC exist in the wider region with an enormous young population that must have its place in emerging economies. With 400 million people – which is about the size of the European UNION – the Middle East has potential to produce its own requirements.”

Referring to Prof. Dr. Yomn M. Hafeez El Hamaki, Head of the Economics Dept., Faculty of Commerce, Ain Shams University, Cairo, the participation of women in Egypt in the labor force is only 25 percent of all graduates applying for work and not using their capability.

The Professor said: “In the Mena region and Arab countries, we don’t find that. Most women in Arab countries like to go and work in [the] government sector where productivity is quite low. But why outsourcing Call Centers to India, when we can do it?

“In the agricultural sector, women are not paid at all. In Arab countries, women have no access in technology. Opportunities should be given to women. No data on gender aspects is available in Egypt.

“Why don’t we use Arabic in the financial sector and [teach] how to write well? In this part of the world, we need [the] Arabic language as [a] business language, it is used for culture and religious studies, but I would never look on Twitter or Facebook for Arabic, but on Tahrir Square, [it should] all come in Arabic.”

The American University of Sharjah, founded in 1997, laid out on a enormous compound with palace-like buildings flanked by picturesque palm trees, fountains, and flower beds in the middle of the desert, and seems more like a luxurious oasis at first sight, than a brainstorm center.

Basal Talal, the General Manager of Radission Blue, confirms the excellent reputation of AUS. He moved to Sharjah, because his daughter is studying at AUS.

The Emirate Sharjah is the third largest of the 7 United Arab Emirates and is the capital of Arab and Islamic culture. Sharjah has over 22 museums, among them the Sharjah Museum of Islamic civilization, a first of its kind in the UAE and worthwhile to visit. It has kept the strong Arabic and Islamic culture identities.

Life is cheaper and hotel rates are lower in Sharjah, and because of that, tourism from Saudi Arabia is Sharjah’s second largest market after the European market. The very family-friendly environment appeals to the Saudis who are holding 24 percent of the arrivals from travelers of GCC countries (381,625 tourists from the GCC region), with over 65,000 Saudi tourists visiting Sharjah in the first quarter this year.

The Al Majaz Waterfront Park, which was reopened at the end of last year after undergoing massive renovation, is enhancing the Emirates as a leading family tourism destination in the region.

Sharjah is also connected by Dubai Airport, and it only takes 20 minutes to travel at night, but at certain hours during the daytime, one may end up in heavy traffic jams, when it might take up to 2-3 hours to get from Sharjah from Dubai Airport.

According to the Khahleej Times, the hospitality sector in the UAE is witnessing a robust growth, and UAE hotels have hosted over 14 million guests, with room nights rising by 15 percent, generating 40 million overnights. UAE hotel occupancy went up 70 percent, boosting revenues to Dh 22 billion, with European guests topping the list, followed by Asians and citizens of GCC members.

With Dubai business picking up again and money coming in through Arab Spring, the Saudis, Arabs, and Syrians are all bringing their money into country. Dubai is like Las Vegas, where everybody wants to come and wants to be. Arabs come for their weekends, a female CEO of an Islamic bank in Sharjah explained.

Mr. Hussain Al Mahmoudi, Director General of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, sees Sharjah as a trade hub between Asia and Europe, offering excellent opportunities for smaller and middle-sized business. He is supporting foreign companies who want to invest in Sharjah, and coming from less “most popular” countries, like America, China, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, etc.

The home of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Sharjah, which is built on an artificial hill surrounded by massive open space and land overlooking the Arabian Gulf, is a monument itself.

“It does not need skyscrapers, but a down to Earth policy with open space like Central Park in New York to make it more attractive than anything else in countries where every inch of land is used for constructions,” is the Credo of The Ruler.

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Editor in chief is Linda Hohnholz.