Writing Sharjah’s Landscape

Detail, Layout Plan, Sheet One, Sharjah Town Plan, Sir William Halcrow & Partners, 1963.

Below are the introductory paragraphs to my article “Writing Sharjah’s Landscape” in Building Landscape (Birkhäuser, 2021) edited by Sultan Sooud Al Qassimi and me. More information here. You can download my article here.

Sharjah’s twentieth-century history was shaped by those empowered to tell it and by the audience they chose to tell it to. Storytellers crafted plots upon the city’s contours—slabbed in concrete, steel, and asphalt. Megatons of imported materials—stirred with local petroleum, water, and sand and assembled by a legion of migrants—hardened into an admixture of architecture and infrastructure, the unyielding evidence of history professed. The power to tell Sharjah’s history has been intricately tied to the power to build the city. More than just the setting of a history, Sharjah’s built landscape is the story. And predominant tellers of that story have been British: first military strategists, then government officials, and later private-sector consultants.

In 1822, British naval officers ransacked Sharjah and the extended coast stretching beyond it. They decimated Sharjah’s maritime fleet and, presumably, its harbor. Soon thereafter, their superiors gave the greater coast a name: the Trucial States. Around the same time, an Arab emissary, working out of a house along Sharjah’s harbor, started reporting to British officials in Bahrain.* His placement in Sharjah, as opposed to any of the other Trucial States, indicated the city’s regional prominence and the need to keep a surveilling eye on it. In the 1930s, nearly a century after destroying Sharjah’s seafaring capacity, the British government planted an ad hoc pier on its shore to supply the construction of an inland air base. The resulting air station, as it was called, resulted in both Sharjah’s increased prominence and its further subjugation to British oversight.

Just more than a decade after the completion of the air station, British officials started to assess nearby Dubai as a more promising location than Sharjah from which to secure impending oil contracts for British companies.

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*Rosemarie Said Zahlan, The Origins of the United Arab Emirates: A Political and Social History of the Trucial States. (London: Macmillan, 1978), xv.