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The UAE has no shortage of world-renowned attractions, but Sharjah has managed to carve out a unique role in the region by emphasizing its rich cultural heritage. The Sharjah government has invested heavily in restoring and renovating traditional sites, with major projects like the Heart of Sharjah and the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization drawing visitors from around the world. The Emirate has also made an effort to become a major part of the global publishing industry, leveraging its international connections and convenient geographical location to turn the annual Sharjah Book Fair into one of the industry’s most important events. Throughout it all, the government has emphasized the Emirate’s history and Arabic cultural heritage to generate opportunities for cultural and economic growth in unexpected areas.
HEART OF SHARJAH
No project better encapsulates how Sharjah’s history plays a role in its present than the Heart of Sharjah. The idea is deceptively simple: the Sharjah government is working to restore and redevelop the traditional core of the city, repurposing old buildings as hotels, markets, and restaurants to create a pedestrianized district easily accessible to tourists. The first of five construction phases began in 2010, and the project is expected to be completed in 2025. A basic description of the project belies its complexity and ambition; early works have included the archaeological excavation of a commercial street to unearth the remains of the historic city beneath it. Future work calls for the construction of “natural environments” that will contain elements of various traditional UAE lifestyles. The second phase will also include significant infrastructure improvements to allow the site to handle heavy visitor volumes; taxi stands, bus stops, and underground parking facilities are all set to be constructed in a way that does not interfere with the traditional architecture of the site.
The Heart of Sharjah project, directed by the Sharjah Investment and Development Authority, is the best and clearest example of what sets Sharjah apart from other Emirates. While Dubai and Abu Dhabi have attained international attention thanks to their explosive development and luxury retail options, Sharjah has chosen to emphasize its traditional cultural history. It is an approach that has earned it international attention, as evidenced by UNESCO’s 1998 decision to name Sharjah the “Cultural Capital of the Arab World” and Sharjah’s 2014 designation as the “Capital of Islamic Culture” by various ministers of culture in Islamic countries. With a history dating back to the 11th century, Sharjah’s identity as one of the hubs of Islamic commerce and culture is the subject of 16 museums dealing with subjects from Islamic art and science to marine life. Sharjah’s government has also demonstrated an ability to turn these cultural exhibits into a source of stable economic activity: the Emirate saw 1.8 million visitors spend more than 4 million nights in the city’s hotels in 2016, a 17% increase over the previous year. With the construction of the Heart of Sharjah, the Emirate has plans to grow that number to 10 million tourists by 2021. New marketing partnerships with Arab and Asian markets have been actively promoting Sharjah’s cultural heritage, and industry leaders are confident that the sector will become known throughout the world as the leading destination for Islamic cultural tourism.
Sharjah’s cultural heritage and international connections can also be seen in the growing prominence of its literary sector. Named the 2019 World Book Capital by UNESCO, Sharjah’s emphasis on inclusive literary programs and bringing new publishing to the Arab world has drawn international attention. The themes behind Sharjah’s heavy promotion of books are similar to those behind the Heart of Sharjah: recognition of the Emirate’s rich Islamic history, community through shared cultural appreciation, and economic growth through international recognition of the unique opportunities offered in the Emirate. The Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF) has become one of the Emirate’s most noteworthy cultural events; the 2016 edition drew more than 2.3 million visitors over its 11 days, making it the third-largest book fair in the world. Since its founding in 1982, SIBF has grown to include more than 1,600 publishing houses from 60 countries, and Sharjah’s government has ambitious plans for further expansion. The Emirate is currently constructing the Sharjah Publishing City (SPC), the world’s first free trade zone exclusively for printing and publishing. Once completed, the 400,000sqm facility will be home to marketing and production facilities for a deep roster of international publishers, solidifying Sharjah’s place as the home of the Arab literary industry. The Emirate’s longstanding international ties have helped ensure the success of the venture, Sharjah Book Authority Chairman Ahmed Al Ameri told TBY. “When it opens in November, SPC… will be a one-stop shop for international publishing,” he explained. “SPC will expand and diversify Sharjah’s economic make-up, creating a new vertical industry for the years ahead… international interest is substantial and we have so far attracted over USD85 million in international investment.”
Yet the benefits of Sharjah’s push to become a major part of the global literary landscape go beyond just economic growth. HH Dr. Shaikh Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qasimi and other leaders have long understood the positive externalities that come with a culture of learning, and the growth of the book festival has brought new levels of access to and engagement with Sharjah’s libraries. The 2016 edition of the SIBF saw more than 600 school visits, and Sharjah’s universities have grown in prominence in recent years thanks in large part to the international ties created by the SIBF. In 2014, for example, Al Qasimi University opened a new library that is home to more than 150,000 books, including foreign-language titles to meet the needs of English and French-speaking international students studying at the university. Sharjah has also begun to make inroads into previously untapped markets via book exchanges; in late 2016, it was named the official guest of honor at the São Paulo International Book Fair. In the long run, such collaborations will only continue to accelerate growth as they create their own new markets for publishing opportunities. Book authority Chairman Al Ameri believes that this will ultimately be the greatest legacy of the SPC and SIBF: “We have created an excellent platform for Emirati authors by translating their work into different languages, thereby bridging the cultural gap between East and West,” he told TBY. “We are sharing our literature, our traditions, and our culture with the world through books. This industry is valued at AED1.5 billion, but it is one that offers benefits far beyond monetary value.”