Just 10km north up the coast, the city of SHARJAH seems at first sight like simply an extension of Dubai, with whose northern suburbs it now merges seamlessly in an ugly concrete sprawl. Physically, the two cities may have virtually fused into one, but culturally they remain light years apart. Sharjah has a distinctively different flavour, having clung much more firmly to its traditional Islamic roots, with none of Dubai’s freewheeling glitz and tourist fleshpots – and precious few tourists either.
Sharjah’s appeal is far from obvious. Physically it’s the most unattractive place in the UAE, a desperately ugly sprawl of concrete high-rises and traffic, while at ground level the entire city, despite its size, seems oddly lacking in any kind of street life or definite personality. There are compensations, however, mainly in the shape of the city’s fine array of museums devoted to various aspects of Islamic culture and local Emirati life, all of which offer some recompense for Sharjah’s architectural squalor and puritanical regime. These include the world-class Museum of Islamic Civilization, the excellent Sharjah Art Gallery, the impressive new Sharjah Heritage Museum, and the engaging Al Mahatta aviation museum. Further attractions include the massive Blue Souk, one of the largest in the UAE, and Souq al Arsa, one of the prettiest.