Although just next door to Dubai, the emirate and city of Sharjah seems a world removed. Crowded, conservative, and lacking in Dubai's fashion-conscious modernity, Sharjah offers a journey into the traditional Emirati way of life. If Abu Dhabi is the UAE's political center and Dubai the commercial hub, then Sharjah is the federation's cultural and historic heart.
Settlement in Sharjah dates back 6,000 years, and it was the key port on the lower Arabian Gulf into the first half of the 19th century. Not so long ago, Sharjah was among the richest cities in the Gulf, a fishing, pearling, and trading hub that eclipsed Dubai in prestige and wealth. But while Dubai's leaders in recent decades have embraced globalization with a kind of frenetic engagement, Sharjah's rulers have opted to focus on preserving the emirate's heritage and conservative values. The result is a traditional Arabian lifestyle that contrasts sharply with Dubai's more modern, Western approach.
In 1998, UNESCO designated Sharjah the Cultural Capital of the Arab Region. The emirate's rulers successfully restored old buildings and districts to their authentic architectural past, established museums and cultural organizations, opened universities, and organized regular art exhibitions and events. The museums here are dedicated to the arts, sciences, Islamic history, natural history, and traditional Arabian crafts. For some, this makes Sharjah more interesting than the other emirates, which tend to lack cultural offerings. Islam lies at the heart of this cultural life. Mosques show up on just about every block, a testament to the importance of religion in this society. Sharjah takes its conservatism seriously, and visitors are expected not to wear revealing clothing or engage in behavior that could be interpreted as disrespectful of Islam.
As Dubai rents have skyrocketed, Sharjah -- with its significantly more affordable housing -- has become the main residential suburb for workers commuting to Dubai. The downside is intense traffic during the morning and evening rush hours within the city and on the road to Dubai. If you're going to visit, it's best to travel on the weekend or outside peak commuter hours. Otherwise the only culture you may see is that related to the automotive industry.