Sharjah, an emirate that doesn't spew oil, plays 'Wall Street' part

"Smile! You are in Sharjah." A billboard next to the desert state's modern highway flashes this welcoming message to visitors as they enter from neighboring Dubai. And Sharjah's economic planners are scrambling to make sure that visitors -- particularly business people -- get the message.

Unlike Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the largest of the seven states that formed the United Arab Emirates after independence from Britain in 1971, Sharjah, the third-largest, is not blessed with oil reserves. But the oil boom that has fueled Middle Eastern prosperity is reverberating here, and with Beirut, the one-time banking center of the Middle East, ravaged by war, Sharjah is making a strong bid to become the Wall Street of the Persian Gulf.

"Sharjah is the traffic juncture of the federation and thus has all the advantages of becoming the service center of the region," says Sultan bin Muhammad al-Qasimi, the emirate's ruler since 1972; "but to make this possible we need foreign investments." And the dynamic 42-year-old emir is having considerable success in attracting this capital, particularly from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. In addition, the sheikh has exhibited a political acumen in allying himself with Abu Dhabi's Sheikh Zayid ibn Sultan al-Nuhayan, the rich president of the United Arab Emirates and a staunch defender of federation. As a result, Abu Dhabi has great interest in an economically sound Sharjah.

A few years ago Sharjah, the capital of the emirate of the same name, was a sleepy fishing village of 25,000. Today giant green, yellow, and orange cranes pierce the desert sky as more than 100,000 people from around the globe -- Pakistani and Indian guest workers and American, West German, French, and Japanese engineers and managers -- build a city of high-rise steel and concrete buildings.

The attractions for this cosmopolitan population are numerous. Taxes and unions are nonexistent.International facilities include American schools for the first through 12th grades, as well as an international English-language school and French and German schools. In 1977, Sharjah reached an agreement with the University of Maryland to open a branch here offering 12 accredited undergraduate courses. They are taught by a locally recruited staff, all of whom have graduate degrees from American universities. Most are the spouses of American and foreign business people.

In addition sharjah's geographic position gives it a natural advantage, with access to both the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman in the Indian Ocean. The port of Khawr Fakkan is being expanded into the largest container deep-sea port of the Arabian Peninsula and is linked to its Gulf port by an asphalt highway on which Sharjah's new airport is situated.Freight can be shipped into either port and forwarded by air or land throughout the Middle East, thereby avoiding delays in overloaded ports and the time-consuming passage through the narrows of Hormuz.

Some time ago applications from 79 American and European banks to establish branches were approved. Three or four years ago, Sharjah began constructing a desert Wall Street around a nucleus of 24 buildings of 12 floors each.

The emirate, with an abundance of beach space, has been working to develop a tourist industry. A hotel boom has been on, with some 25 luxury hotels completed. Hotel space, which amounted to fewer than 300 rooms in early 1977, has now reached about 3,000. Some of the big names involved in the emirate include Air France's Meridien, the Intercontinental, and Holiday Inn. And so intense is international one- upmanship in the Persian Gulf that in 1977 after Dubai chartered the cruise liner Bonvivant and anchored it as a hotel ship, Sharjah later hired the former luxury liner Ile de France for the same purpose.

A holiday bungalow colony along the coast is also being considered. A $1,400 vacation package for visits to the bungalows might include excursions into the interior of the emirate.

But in all this economic development, Sharjah is not ignoring oil. In 1973 it signed an agreement with Iran for oil exploration on the offshore island of Abu Musa.

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