Friday, October 4, 2019

Sharjah: A for Effort, C for Vision

If you are a shaikh, sheikh, emir, sultan, or king in Sharjah, you probably tear out small clumps of your hair at the end of each day. While Dubai, your flashy neighbor 20 minutes away, disregards every hadith and Quranic surah about materialism, you have done everything according to the book—whether academic or religious—and it’s still not enough.

Part of Sharjah’s aversion to ostentation may come from being the preferred location for British elites since 1933. Today, no one doubts Abu Dhabi and Dubai are the richer and more influential of the seven different kingdoms, but once upon a time, pre-oil, the UAE was nothing more than desert and fishermen—and Sharjah its crown jewel.
That’s why Sharjah, not Dubai, is home to the UAE’s first cinema (founded in 1945), 
first commercial airline (Air Arabia) and first airport. Air travel and distant military alliances soon require services, including mail delivery (email and cell phones did not always exist), restaurants, translators, banking, wire transfers, telecommunications, and other commerce. The 1932 contract giving the British permission to use Sharjah as a de facto military base is astoundingly simple—11 years of straightforward obligations summarized in just a few pages, referring to “Sharjah and its villages” and prohibiting “evildoers.” 
The British needed Sharjah to ensure access to its most important colony, India, and Sultan bin Saqr Al Qasimi II wasn’t averse to modernizing his sultanate, creating a worthwhile alliance. 
British influence continues to this day, with almost everyone in Sharjah fluent in English and the UAE’s aviatory knowledge having evolved into a successful space venture.
As a testament to the UAE’s Islamic-based tolerance, Sharjah is spectacularly diverse, with Filipinos, Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Africans, and many other nationalities living side-by-side. At least half of any cinema’s movies are Indian in origin, involving dialects I’ve never seen before. 
It may be one of the few places in the world an African immigrant and his/her children can experience zero racism merely by donning the local dress. Much credit must be given to Dr. Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammad Al Qassimi, the UAE’s most distinguished scholar. Many pitfalls existed on the way from fishing outpost to trading middleman to pearl diving to gold broker to oil producer (in 1958), and the Al Qassimi family committed few errors—except ones made by all other well-meaning politicians. Dr. Al Qassimi’s charity is everywhere in Sharjah, and therein lies the rub: every action taken to re-shape and modernize Sharjah while reducing poverty has also held it back, because what works for cold Britain and vast America does not address the needs of a small, scorching hot kingdom.

Instead of building asphalt roads—which, being oil byproducts, absorb heat and increase temperatures—Sharjah should have built trams or a subway. (Even relatively poor Casablanca, Morocco has a European-built tram.) Instead of making Sharjah unwalkable due to its street designs and absence of widespread beverage vending machines, the Sheikh should have known if people cannot walk in a city, they will stay inside and increase their chances of diabetes. Rather than install air conditioning everywhere—which increases overall temperatures by pushing hot air outside—the kingdom should have considered how to better utilize wind and shade. Above all, rather than rely on Western and Indian technology—which binds them to foreign security practices—the UAE should have invested in domestic technological development so its apps were more than just copies of Uber (Careem) and Zomato (Talabat). (By the way, even Sharjah’s tourism sector is out of sync—it offers a slick handbook to download, but many of the recommendations, such as “Al Arsaha Public Coffee Shop,” are not listed on Google Maps, making them impossible to find.)

To summarize, modernizing the UAE by hiring American and British companies and adding Arab and Muslim charity/zakat has proven problematic. 
Neither the British nor the Americans still view the UAE—or any other Arab country—as an essential port or aviation hub, shifting the relationship from long-term partner to mere oil supplier. Meanwhile, India’s focus on homegrown technology has made it the desired partner of both the West and the East, despite its rapidly declining natural resources and its questionable track record on the environment and physical infrastructure.

Aside from the UAE’s poor city planning due to accepting developer plans initially tailored for other cities and countries, most of its small businesses make little sense. While London has numerous small bookstores surrounded by cafés and one of the world’s most innovative libraries, the United Nations has never designated it a “World Book Capital.” In 2019, consistent with its desire to be seen as the UAE’s cultural capital, Sharjah became a so-called “World Book Capital” and “City of Books,” but other than a single oversized book display in my nearby McDonald’s, I have yet to see an actual bookstore worth visiting. 
One gets the sense UNESCO and other UN-affiliated organizations often bestow awards out of political reciprocity rather than merit, and without doing any research, I’m certain the UAE has contributed to the UN more than most nations. Furthermore, many of the small businesses I do see must be supported by the king’s beneficence, because while useful ten years ago, they are no longer viable—unless you think printer cartridge replacement, typing centers (not internet cafés), or document copying are the future.

Like with most problems not solved at their root, poor city development segues into other bad decisions, throwing politicians and kings into the hands of shopping mall and condominium developers—worsening sprawl, destroying local flavor, corralling imagination into mere building exteriors, and cementing the unsustainable. Ideally, the UAE’s most valuable partner would be Japan, which has a similar climate and the world’s most advanced city in Tokyo. Yet, what is the one major country in Sharjah I see having little to no influence? If you guessed Japan, sadly, you are correct. Political idealists despairing at globalization’s backlash should ask themselves: what is the point of globalization if you have money but can’t figure out which city makes the most sense to emulate because your politicians and students haven’t bothered learning Japanese and can’t free themselves from a post-WWII economic framework in which their natural resources are traded under a Western financial system?

Egyptian leader Gamal Adbul Nasser must have seen all these issues when he founded the Arab League in Cairo in 1945, bringing together Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. When he died in 1970, the Arab world lost its best visionary a year before Britain promised its citizens it would withdraw all forces east of the Suez. Coinciding with British withdrawal was the birth of the UAE in 1971, then referred to as the “Trucial States” (per an 1836 treaty with Britain).

Imagine being Abu Dhabi-born Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan on December 2, 1971, the UAE’s first president, knowing since 1968 he would no longer receive British protection or revenue from use of its facilities. Who would protect the UAE’s oil shipments? How would his country access reasonably-priced shipping insurance? Whom could the UAE trust? Then imagine one year later, Sheikh Khalid bin Mohammad Al Qasimi, one-time ruler of Sharjah, attempting one of many coups in the Trucial States’ history, in this case, failing. The number of assassinations and coups in the Trucial States from 1926 to 1972 are too many to recount, but as far as I know, no coups or assassinations occurred after 1972 or during Sheikh Zayed’s rule. Like the prophet Muhammad (PBUH), the Sheikh seems to have united different Arab tribes, ushering in an era of peace and forward-thinking views on women’s rights, one reason the UAE is more tolerant than many other Arab countries.

With Gamal Nasser’s death in 1970, Sheikh Zayed’s death in 2004, and Lee Kuan Yew’s death in 2015, the East may have lost its most astute political leaders. In the modern era, where trade, technology, and debt link all countries’ economies together, the absence of leaders like Sheikh Zayed is showing across the Islamic world, as too many politicians with too much money fail to forge a path on their own and choose alliances with countries and politicians out of historical habit. Who will be the UAE’s next Sheikh Zayed? Who will be the Arab world’s new Nasser, who negotiated a peaceful return of the Suez Canal back to Egyptians and who saw the Muslim world's potential for trade agreements earlier than most? Until we know the answers, expect more political instability not just in the Arab world, but in all countries that no longer have the wisdom to move forward in ways individually-tailored to their own citizens’ needs. As Shakespeare might say, “A decent politician, a decent politician! My kingdom for a decent politician!”

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2019)

Bonus: 1) every "Union Taxi" cab I hailed tried to cheat me--use another service if you can; and 2) if you visit, don't forget to try kanafeh and other Arab sweets.