As I floated in the balmy waters of the Gulf, the clammy embrace of a plastic bag reminded me that even Sharjah, the self-proclaimed “eco-emirate” and “cultural capital” of the UAE, cannot control the sea.
On land, its 80-year-old ruler has always tried to steer a more enlightened course than the other six emirates. With a total ban on alcohol, it is also the “dry” emirate, free from the boozy brunches and cocktail-fuelled nightclubs of neighbouring Dubai.
I lived in the Emirates during the booming 90s, and everyone says life is much harder now – less work, lower salaries, higher costs. So how is green and virtuous Sharjah coping in today’s cut-throat commercial world?
First off I wanted to revisit some of Sharjah’s many museums. Most are clustered in town round the Book Roundabout, but my favourite, the Natural History Museum, is set all by itself in the desert beyond the new airport. It tackles no less a subject than creation itself, using hi-tech to the full, bombarding all the senses. At the entrance a Quranic quote proclaims:
Assuredly the creation Of the heavens And the earth Is a greater matter Than the creation of man: Yet most men Understand not. (Sura 40, Verse 58)
To digest such profundity I sat in the cafe, just as before, eating organic cake, watched by hungry wolves on the other side of a window – they are in the open, while the humans are confined. The whole concept was the brainchild of Marycke Jongbloed, a Dutch expat GP and nature-lover who became one of the UAE’s first environmentalists. In 1991 she wrote her eye-opening Green Guide to the Emirates, giving guidance on how to avoid damage to wildlife habitats during aptly named ‘wadi-bashing’ excursions in 4WDs.
She explained how the delicate relationship between animals, plants and man in the desert had remained undisturbed for centuries, but how the advent of the rifle then changed that balance forever.
The last oryx was wiped out in 1972, hunted for sport. Motorised hunting parties with dozens of vehicles would slaughter whole herds. After no such sport was left in their own countries, Arabian princes and their entourages went instead to kill the wildlife of other countries like Jordan and Iraq where a Qatari hunting party was caught (and ransomed) as late as 2016.
Marycke is long gone, and her Green Guide is out of print, but the oryx, gazelle, tahr goats, sandcats, and Arabian leopard live on in her museum and in the adjacent breeding centre. New labels tell of endangered species, giving facts and figures, but not a word about the hunting pastime which brought them to near extinction. The houbara bustard fixes me, the only visitor, mistrustfully with his beady eye, and who can blame him?
In pre-oil days Sharjah was wealthier than either Abu Dhabi or Dubai, thanks to a bustling trading port at its Creek, run by the powerful Qawasim seafaring tribe. Earlier in the 20th century Sharjah was also the headquarters of the British-sponsored Trucial Oman Scouts, with an RAF base and a residence for the British political agent. As such it had a stronger British presence than any other emirate, thanks to the ruler’s agreement in 1932 that allowed the British to build an airstrip, the UAE’s first. The rulers of Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Ras Al-Khaimah had all refused. This brought Sharjah valuable extra revenue at a time when the pearling industry had virtually ceased because of the arrival of Japanese cultured pearls.
Oil was discovered in Sharjah in commercial quantities in the 1970s, enough to enable it to improve its infrastructure. But it remains poorer than most of its oil-rich neighbours, forced to diversify while struggling with rapid urbanisation and high population growth.
On this trip I spoke to as many young Sharjans as I could about their own culture and environment. Not a single one had even heard of the Natural History Museum. The sad truth, it seems, is that Emirati youth is not really that interested. What excites them, I discovered, was global culture, especially international sports celebrities, many of whom ironically, in a perverse reversal of the Arabian hunting parties, are being lured by hefty prize money to come and play in fancy new venues in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Sharjah can’t compete on that front, but it scores higher on churches and Russians. There were always a few back in the Nineties – churches and Russians – but now there are lots. The biggest church, not just in Sharjah but in all the UAE, is the Russian Orthodox,
with capacity for 20,000 worshippers, in elegant Byzantine architecture complete with turquoise onion domes. Hundreds of thousands of Russians a year now visit, lured not just by the churches, but also by the cheaper hotels, lower rents and tax-free fur coats. If they miss alcohol they just stock up in Ajman, the mini-emirate next-door.
Today’s version of Marycke Jongbloed, Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, would suffer heart failure if ever she came to the Gulf. The UAE’s climate policies have been called out as ‘highly insufficient’ by the independent Climate Action Tracker. The Emirates collectively per capita have one of the biggest carbon footprints in the world and the highest waste generation. Moves are afoot to counter that image, with Dubai’s ‘Sustainable City’ and another twice the size planned in Sharjah, but it may just be PR.
Greta has accused world leaders of ‘clever accounting and creative PR’ to make it look as if they are doing something, while in practice doing little. Dubai could give a masterclass in such skills. The campaign to promote its EXPO 2020, billed as ‘the World’s Greatest Show’ is in full swing under the slogan ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future’ with a major sub-theme of ‘sustainability.’
The pioneering Marycke hoped that education was the key, that her Green Guide would change behaviour, teaching people to understand the desert. ‘And if you become thus involved,’ she wrote, ‘surely you will not leave plastic bags, bottles and cans lying around…’
Decades later, the proliferation of plastic, on land and at sea, suggests her message – and Greta’s – are still falling on deaf ears.
A version of this article appeared in Middle East Eye on 22 December 2020: https://www.middleeasteye.net/opinion/sharjah-really-green-and-virtuous-emirate
Diana Darke is a Middle East cultural expert with special focus on Syria. A graduate in Arabic from Oxford University, she has spent over 30 years specialising in the Middle East and Turkey, working for both government and commercial sectors. She is the author of several books on Middle East society, including My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Crisis (2016), The Merchant of Syria (2018) and co-author of The Last Sanctuary in Aleppo (2019). Her upcoming book Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture shaped Europe will be published in June 2020, and can be pre-ordered at a discount for £17.60 here: