The Emirate of Sharjah has become known for its rich history and cultural appeal. Thanks to events such as the Sharjah Biennial and the Sharjah Art platform, as well as the numerous cultural museums around the city, the UAE’s third-largest Emirate has received global recognition for its celebration of the arts, welcoming creative talents from around the world to share this platform of culture.
H.E Sheikh Fahim Al Qasimi
But there are many more ways that Sharjah is sharing its strengths. Under the guidance of H.E. Sheikh Fahim Bin Sultan Bin Khalid Al Qasimi, Chairman of the Department of Government Relations, Sharjah is spreading its uniqueness, beauty and strengths with the world, developing global partnerships and putting Sharjah on the map for its cultural power, as well as its expertise in education and innovation.
Heading up the Department of Government Relations, H.E. Sheikh Fahim and the department work in cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation to coordinate the Emirate’s foreign relations and seek to maintain and strengthen its reputation at the regional and international levels. The department oversees the organisation of the strategic cities program in Sharjah, aiming to build strategic relationships based on enhancing cultural and knowledge exchange and achieving economic development. We talk exclusively to H.E Sheikh Fahim Bin Sultan Bin Khalid Al Qasimi to learn more.
Tell us about your role as the Chairman of the Department of Government Relations in Sharjah, what it entails and what your role involves daily.
I started my career in the private sector, and then, nine years ago, His Highness Sultan bin Muhammad Al-Qasimi, The Ruler of Sharjah, asked me to join the Sharjah Government to establish an international cooperation for the Emirate of Sharjah. Having studied abroad, I realised we needed to identify where an international cooperation department in Sharjah would focus. We began by looking at where Sharjah has an outward-looking presence. We identified four areas: economics, tourism, culture and education, and we started working on ways we could place Sharjah by comparing it to other cities in the world. For example, we looked at The United Kingdom and highlighted the similarities between cities like Cambridge, Edinburgh and Manchester. And I think that helped our international partners to place Sharjah.
My job today revolves around working with countries and cities worldwide to help deepen and strengthen their ties with Sharjah. There are three main elements of my job. The first is to be the international representative when Sharjah travels abroad. I support other departments when it is required for Sharjah to have a global presence. For example, with the Sharjah Book Fair coming up next month, I will be in Korea as the guest of honour, working with our Korean partners on this. My department also helps to organise economic and trade visits to certain countries. The second part of my role is to represent His Highness the Ruler of Sharjah as his diplomat when required. I have had the pleasure and honour of meeting presidents and speaking at prestigious events on behalf of His Highness, and I feel blessed to have had those opportunities. And then last but not least, it is related to representatives of our international partners who are based in the UAE, namely the Consul Generals of all of the countries we work with; whenever they need anything from Sharjah, we call ourselves the “Diplomatic Window” into the Emirates.
How is Sharjah positioning itself as a tourist destination and appealing to international visitors?
My role is a very multi-faceted job, and I will say that there can be different messages depending on who we’re speaking to, but around seven years ago, we realised that we needed to distil the message down to something that everyone could understand. If we think about the core values of Sharjah, it comes down to the message that Sharjah is the UAE’s capital of culture, education, and innovation. Culture in the sense that we have the Sharjah Biennial and the Sharjah Arts Foundation. We also have one of the world’s largest Book Fairs, the country’s most extensive collection of museums, and so on. Regarding education, we have over 40,000 students from over one hundred nationalities. I always say we educate the region. The number of Cabinet Ministers who are graduates of Sharjah Universities is vast; we have produced numerous lawyers, dentists, doctors and more. This message is quite easy to share, and we work a lot on student exchanges, professor exchanges, and research programmes around this. And then lastly, after 25 years of these Universities, we are focusing on the next phase of innovation, which looks at how we bring applied research and technology to the Emirates. We look to find young start-up companies that are solving global challenges and consider how we, as a government entity, can enable them to have Sharjah as a base. That is an exciting task.
What is in the pipeline for Sharjah in terms of innovation?
Innovation is a very abstract and broad term. If I try to keep the message very focused, I look at where Sharjah has been leading in particular industries, where I always highlight our “Sharjah Champions”. Sharjah is the only Emirate that has two coastlines on the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. And because of that, we have Gulftainer, one of the leading logistics port operators in the world. This is a Sharjah-based company which operates Port Canaveral in The United States. Secondly, Sharjah International Airport, which people living in the UAE might call a small airport, is a large international airport on a global scale. It can carry up to 12 million passengers a year, and it’s rapidly growing. We also have there the Sharjah International Airport Freezone, where cargo and aviation are a huge hub due to Air Arabia, one of the fastest growing low-cost carriers in the world: once again, a Sharjah success story. We can continue to innovate in this huge sector, and any start-ups in that space should look at working with our aviation sector.
Another company I would like to highlight is BEEAH. BEEAH is a company that’s doing something, unlike anything I’ve seen throughout my career. Around 17 years ago, Sharjah embarked on a mission to solve the waste disposal challenge. The region is one of the highest waste producers in the world, and Sharjah had a bold target of zero waste to landfill. BEEAH was created as a public-private partnership with the Sharjah Municipality and is run by Khaled Al Huraimel, one of the most fascinating CEOs in the country. BEEAH uses a special technology that allowed it to reach seventy per cent diversion of waste from landfill in three years. With the commissioning of a waste-to-energy plan, in coordination with Abu Dhabi, this year Sharjah is on track to being the first city in the Middle East that has zero waste to landfill. And now, BEEAH is exporting its expertise to other areas of the world. They handled waste management for COP 27 and now manage the waste in Sharm El Sheikh, Medina in Saudi Arabia, and the new administrative capital in Cairo, Egypt. This is a global challenge, and this company is solving a problem that needs a solution the world over. So we have these huge success stories in Sharjah, and we need to be sharing these with the world, and that’s my job.
What’s happening in terms of the cultural attractions and activations in Sharjah?
Sharjah has a unique identity, and I tell people they need to spend a week there to get a true sense of the Emirate, particularly the city centre. We have worked for a long time to build an authentic programme, whether in fine art, handicrafts, innovation, education, arts, or other areas. The Sharjah Biennial is one project that has been successful for many years. The art world now knows Sharjah as this location, and I’ve worked with universities teaching Arab art that have Sharjah as part of their curriculum, which shows we’ve created something of magnitude. The Sharjah Book Fair started as a very humble event before I was born and has been the world’s largest book fair in the last few years.
Other stories are not as widely shared yet. I’m fascinated by a project by the Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council. I have worked on a few projects with them, and the handicrafts these women are doing are incredible. As a department, whenever we give gifts, we include items that we have co-produced with Irthi Contemporary Crafts, and it also gives the women working there the opportunity to earn a living. When it comes to Irthi, I would say “watch this space” because there will be a lot of news in the design space in Sharjah.
Last but not least, we as a department have been working on something fascinating in the cultural space. We realised that countries were trying to find better ways to engage with our cultural programme by being on the ground, meeting curators, and finding ways to collaborate. But the cultural centres have always been very much based in the embassies in Abu Dhabi. So, we wanted to find a way to have cultural representation in Sharjah. Most countries worldwide have an official government-associated cultural institution that acts as a cultural ambassador. The British Council is one example; the Allianz Française is another. Coming from the private sector, I realised that one of the challenges for them opening in Sharjah would be the actual physical cost of establishing a centre. But today, with so much content being delivered digitally and people working in more collaborative-like spaces, why don’t we create a cultural centre that houses all of them in one space? And so that is what we are doing! It will be almost like a cultural co-working space. So that is a fascinating project we are currently working on. We hope it will be a place where cultures meet, and I look forward to welcoming Sharjah’s students, residents, and Nationals to this unique space when it opens.
Tell us about what’s happening in terms of the digital transformation of Sharjah and what this means for the future of the Emirate.
I didn’t initially come from the digital industry but began bringing technical solutions to the government several years ago. I saw that there was an opportunity to work on that more closely, and I was asked by His Highness Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed bin Sultan Al Qasimi, Crown Prince, and Deputy Ruler of Sharjah, to look into it, and what I realised was that we needed to think about the people that choose to call Sharjah home. Not digitalisation for digitalisation’s sake but rather, how do we build a plan where the outcome makes people’s lives easier? That took a number of years, the pandemic accelerated a lot of technology adoption, and today we have the Sharjah Digital office, which is now handling this, and they have built the Sharjah Digital app, which is a digital window for residents, and we continue to develop.
Technology, for technology’s sake is great. Still, how we think about it in Sharjah is to consider that only some have access to technology or are used to working with it. We are not naïve to the fact that specific segments of society still prefer to come into a department and deal with someone face to face. So, it’s a tough challenge, and I commend the Sharjah Digital office team who continue to find this delicate balance.
What are some of your favourite locations in Sharjah that our readers should visit?
I often say that I have the easiest job in Sharjah. I get to bring foreign diplomats to the Emirate, show them all the wonderful places, and tell them all the wonderful stories. I’m lucky as I get to see all the hard work that’s put in, and then I get to share it with others, so I have seen every beautiful corner of Sharjah.
I recommend anyone to take a walk around Sharjah. There are some locations that people may be aware of but have not truly experienced it. If you start at the Sharjah Art Museum and walk through the Heart of Sharjah, you will get a sense of the culture and beauty of the city. In the cooler months, stop for a coffee in Chedi Al Bait, continue to walk through the Souq Al Shanasiyah, and pass by the Museum of Islamic Civilisation. That gives you a sense historically about how Sharjah has preserved its history. My family have been in Sharjah for hundreds of years, and for us to maintain that is fascinating.
For people that might be able to call Sharjah home or have just moved there to start a new chapter of their lives, I’m fascinated by the area around University City, all the way across to Al Mamsha and Aljada, where you get a sense of the youthful vibe of Sharjah. You are then also very close to The House of Wisdom, where I spend a lot of time, and it’s a fascinating location. Eating at the Chie restaurant is a great experience, especially if you are a foodie like me!
If you ask me personally where my favourite place in Sharjah is, it would have to be the East Coast. I love Khor Fakkan and Kalba, and because I work in sea turtle rehabilitation in my personal life, I spend a lot of my life underwater on the east coast. The way the mountains roll into the sea is truly special; if I could move the department there, I would!
How would you sum up the future vision of Sharjah?
If I were to look at what Sharjah is focused on or what drives our approach, I would always echo His Highness’ analysis for any project. This is to consider the economic, environmental and, most notably, the social return. That is what Sharjah’s future will be. It will continue to be a place that people want to call home. We’ve grown by nearly half a million people in just a few years because it’s a place that continues to be very conscious of the balance between driving our economy forward but also protecting the environment and making sure the people that benefit the most are the citizens and residents of the Emirate. As long as my colleagues keep that in mind, the future of Sharjah is bright and full of colour, culture and knowledge.
What do you do to relax when you’re not working?
I spend time with my twin boys, who are my everything. I grew up sailing and like to take them out on fishing or sailing boats. If you ask me how to switch off, I free dive. I swim underwater without oxygen because it helps me connect with nature and it lets me completely switch off.
What is the professional motto that you live by?
One of my biggest mentors once told me: “don’t get comfortable, and don’t get complacent.” That’s driven my entire career.
How would you describe Sharjah in one word?
Sharjah means so much more than just a word. No word can capture how dynamic, complex, and multi-faceted Sharjah is. The only way for anyone to describe Sharjah is by using the name of the Emirate itself. I would call Sharjah, Sharjah and if you want to know what that means, you must come and visit!