Lacking the extensive hydrocarbon reserves of its neighbour Abu Dhabi, the government of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates has pursued a policy of diversification in order to safeguard its economic development. Being the only emirate with borders along both the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, Sharjah has capitalised on its unique geographic positioning through building supportive infrastructure in order to promote the growth of its transport and logistics industry.

“The UAE is the new 'silk road', which connects the East with the West, and Sharjah is best known for its logistics services,” says Bassam Salim El Kheshen, senior sales officer at Sharjah Airport International Free Zone. “Sharjah's airport is considered to be the largest cargo hub in the Middle East, and Sharjah’s ports provide services for imports and exports. The businesses that establish their operations here can reach all markets within hours.”

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Marine and air freight services

The trade and manufacturing sector has become one of the central pillars of Sharjah’s economy. According to Shurooq, Sharjah's investment and development authority, the transport and logistics sector was worth Dh3.1bn ($844m) in 2011 and Dh3.6bn in 2012. Sharjah’s officials predict that the sector will be worth Dh4.1bn in 2013, with the main driver behind this growth being its marine and air freight industry.

Having access to three deep-water ports, and being host to one of the UAE’s fastest growing international airports, means Sharjah has been a draw for investors that wish to export goods to the rest of the Middle East, as well as the Indian subcontinent. In addition, Mr El Kheshen says that Sharjah has developed an important role for those seeking to access markets in Africa, as the emirate is widely considered to offer a politically stable environment that is business friendly.

“We see many companies coming from Africa because of the tax incentives and [Sharjah's] location benefits, as well as its stability,” explains Mr El Kheshen. “The government of Sharjah has invested in its ports, and many companies are coming from Africa to establish themselves here to cater to African markets, particularly when it comes to construction and machinery.” Shurooq maintains that the importing and re-exporting of cargo has grown considerably, and by the end of 2010 more than 6545 tonnes of goods were imported and re-exported through Sharjah’s sea freight services.

Environmental issues

The UAE has one of the highest per capita waste levels per person in the world, meaning that environmental challenges are very much on the federal government’s agenda, and Sharjah has carved out its niche as the UAE’s pioneer for renewable energy alternatives. The move to form Sharjah’s first integrated environmental and waste management company, Bee’ah, by emiri decree in 2007 enabled the emirate to develop an expertise in sustainable waste management.

“We started Bee’ah to tackle the UAE’s environmental challenges,” says Khaled Al Huraimel, the company's CEO. “In the Gulf, we are the highest producers of waste per person. Two-and-a-half kilograms per day of waste is generated by each person, which is one of the highest in the world. That was a problem and we started to build the infrastructure to solve it.”

Since its inception as a public-private partnership between the government of Sharjah and the Sharjah City Municipality, Bee'ah has become the Middle East’s leading environment and waste management company. In addition to engaging in a series of educational and sensitisation initiatives on recycling with citizens across the UAE, Bee’ah has developed the requisite infrastructure to process and recycle waste, and in 2012 Sharjah rolled out the Middle East’s first residential recycling programme.

“We built a material recovery facility, which is the largest in the Middle East,” says Mr Al Huraimel. “It takes the municipal waste and segregates it to recover a lot of the recycled material that we sell on. We have built a tyre recycling plant, and we have worked on several projects with Shurooq. For example, the construction of a red tyre track [for joggers] in the Al Majaz Waterfront was done by Bee'ah.”

Sharjah has gained international acclaim for its environmental efforts, with Bee’ah being crowned as the ‘Best Waste Management Company in the Middle East’ by the Facilities Management Middle East Awards in 2012. Yet even though the sector is currently worth Dh740m, the Sharjah government is keen to expand further in this field, through attracting FDI into solar energy generation plants and water desalination projects. With the value of the environmental sector expected to grow to Dh780m in 2014 and to almost Dh1bn by 2016, Marwan Jassim Al Sarkal, the CEO of Shurooq, is a firm believer in the sector's potential for further development.

 “By 2015 everything in Sharjah is going to be recycled, and that will make it the first Arab nation that recycles everything,” says Mr Al Sarkal. “This is a huge area that is going to be developed under a Bee’ah initiative to attract more companies that would like to [work] with it.”

Education opportunities

The American University of Sharjah (AUS) has become distinctive within the region for both the beauty of its Islamic architecture, as well as its rise on global education indices as a centre of academic excellence. Located on the outskirts of Sharjah city centre, the university has become a significant conduit in developing Sharjah’s appeal as an educational destination for prospective international students.

Created in 1997 by Sharjah’s ruler, Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al-Qasimi III, who himself was an alumnus of the American University of Cairo, AUS runs in parallel with the American education system. The quality of the university's technically trained graduates is seen as a positive selling point in the eyes of foreign companies, who are happy to employ local but well-educated Emirati graduates as a cheaper alternative to importing costly expatriates to run their offices in Sharjah.

“We are the most competitive university in the UAE in terms of selecting our students,” says Thomas Hochstettler, vice-chancellor at the AUS. “We have established ourselves as a centre for ecosystem research. We have partnered with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Columbia University, Oxford University, and the Health and Sciences University to monitor waste management, and we are becoming a major magnet for waste management in this part of the world.”

According to Mr Hochstettler, the proactive and direct involvement of Sheikh Sultan in supporting the growth of the university has done much to lift Sharjah’s international profile. Indeed, AUS’s involvement in international cultural exhibitions, including the Milan Furniture Fair in 2012, which showcased the university’s architectural department’s art designs in Italy, has been significant in placing Sharjah on the global educational map.

 “The university is becoming increasingly well known,” says Mr Hochstettler. “I have been here for four years and when I first told people [abroad] that I was going to Sharjah, they asked where that is. But now when I go back home, I find more people know exactly where it is. That is because of the cultural leadership here. There is a lot of cultural activity going on and we have really become a destination for people who are interested in culture in the region.”