March 21, 2022: Ajman
From Fujairah on the east coast, Maisie and I drove 90 minutes west to reach tiny Ajman, the smallest of the 7 United Arab Emirates. 100 years ago, Ajman had just 750 inhabitants, but is now a big bustling city. My first impression of Ajman was tons of skyscrapers and traffic.
Why do so many people choose to live in tiny Ajman? Two hypothesis: 1. Ajman has as free trade zone so there are actually a decent number of jobs. 2. Many of these people work in Dubai but it’s cheaper to live here. And unlike Sharjah, Ajman allows alcohol.
It was nearly 14:00 and we were hungry. So, I found what I thought was a highly rated Indian restaurant but turned out to be a local restaurant of the same name. The reviews also looked good.
Like all restaurants we have visited so far, we were sent to the family section because the main room is for men only. In this case, the family section was just a curtain put up surrounding our table. We ordered a biriyani (rice dish popular with Muslims in South/SW Asia and a veggie dish. Before the food arrived, the waiter placed a plastic sheet over the table.
Then the food came with bread and no silverware! It got messy eating with our hands, but we loved it. I was so happy that Maisie was adventurous enough to eat in this fashion. This was one of my favorite meals of the trip.
Ajman has two main attractions: the fort museum and the fish market. Maisie was fortressed out so we opted for the fish market. The Ajman fish market is the largest in the country. People come all the way from Dubai to get their fish here. The fishing boats park at a dock next to the market.
Ajman´s fish market is probably 2-3 times larger than the Ras Al Khaimah fish market. Unfortunately, we arrived in the afternoon after most fisherman had sold their catch. So, it was open, but quiet.
Umm Al Quwain
We had one more Emirate to visit today and it was Umm Al Quwain, just 30 minutes north of Ajman. Umm Al Quain is the least populated Emirate with only 77,000 residents. The eponymous main city is located at the end of a peninsula.
Umm Al Quwain appears to be mostly huge 2-story mansions, a big shift from the other Emirates which have many high rises. The roads were silent.
The only tourist attraction in Umm Al Quwain is the fort museum. Every Emirate seems to have one. Before going in, I apologized to Maisie since we had already seen 2 fort museums in 2 days.
The Umm Al Quwain fort museum, made of coral, is similar in quality to RAK one, which is to say very okay. Average artifacts, cool architecture, very few descriptions. The best part was the sheikh´s bedroom. In total, we spent 20 minutes there.
We spent the remainder of the afternoon at our beach resort hotel. The sea water was strangely cold, but the pool was very warm. The pool had large number of jets, so we hung out there until the sunset.
For dinner, we ventured to a traditional Emirati seafood place. Like all our other meals, we sat in the family section. In this case, our private room was graced with a photo of the restaurant owner and Ron Jeremy… So much for “Family” section.
We got a mixed plate of grilled seafood which included shark. I wanted to love the meal, but it was honestly just okay. If you´re in the area, I would still recommend visiting but maybe stick to the whole grilled fish.
March 22, 2022: Sharjah
Our final stop on the Five Emirate road trip was Sharjah. Sharjah is the 3rd largest Emirate and is considerably larger than any of the others we have visited thus far.
In the 1970´s they decided forge a different path and ban alcohol. This prevented Sharjah from the exponential growth seen in Dubai, but at the same time created a conservative alternative to the so-called madness. Sharjah continued to grow through their oil & gas reserves and deep-water port in the east, but it would always be in the shadow of Dubai just 20 minutes south.
Today, Sharjah is still relevant. Its international airport is a hub for the low-cost regional carrier Air Arabia. Nearly 1/4 of the UAE´s population lives in Sharjah. The city is a seemingly endless sea of skyscrapers.
The main hub of activity in Sharjah is the city center of Sharjah, which is reported to have 17 museums. We visited two. The first stop was the Islamic Art Museum. Islamic art has not been popular for all that long, as most of the creative efforts seem to have been put into the architecture at mosques and palaces. Additionally, most of Islam bans the depiction of live creatures, so artists traditionally are limited to the more conceptual pieces. While not as strong as in Europe, the Muslim world DOES have an art scene and many exhibits are popping up at renowned museums.
This museum had two floors. The first floor was a special exhibit from a Lebanese artist and the second floor had the permanent collection.
Personally, I don´t care too much for modern, conceptual art, so most of what I saw didn´t do it for me. My favorite paintings were actually the 1800´s European oil paintings of Moroccan souks…. sorry!
Our next museum was the Museum of Islamic Civilization. The museum topped with a domed structure, has two wings: Islamic scientific achievement and religion.
We started in the science section which has a dizzying display of the many achievements made by Islamic scientists in mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, medicine, and physics. Most of these achievements happened during the Golden Age of Islamic Civilization (8th-14th century). The museum explained each discovery as well as displaying reproductions of the scientific instruments used to make the discoveries.
The second section explained the basics of Islam: the 5 pillars, terminology and an overview of important people and sights. Some of the highlights of this section included a kiswah, embroidered piece of cloth that covered the Kaaba in Mecca.
Another strange sight was an Israeli tour group led by a Hebrew-speaking guide. They were looking at a model of the Temple Mount (Arabic: Haram al Sharif), the holy hilltop in Jerusalem containing the Al Aqsa Mosque (3rd most sacred site in Islam) and the Dome of the Rock and previously the Jewish Temple. Israel and the UAE had recently signed a peace treaty so many Israelis have been visiting Dubai and probably visa-versa. I am sure that the Israeli group was hearing a different perspective on this famous hill than they typically hear.
Having seen the two most famous museums in Sharjah, we decided to walk into the old city, a small collection of low-rise coral buildings now containing tourist shops. The shops were uninteresting, but we did manage to find a local restaurant called the Arabic Tea House. Unlike all our other meals so far on this trip, there was no family section and we actually saw Emiratis (both families and groups of men/women) eating here.
It was now time to head to our final stop, the Sharjah Central Souk. This massive market is full of gold shops. One of the two buildings had exclusively gold shops. I was originally thinking that this would be a dangerous place to bring my girlfriend, but it turns out she doesn´t like the yellowy gold they sell in the Middle East. I don´t understand how so many gold shops can stay in business, but if there is one thing I learned here, it is that Middle Easterners really like gold.
We then drove back to the Dubai Airport to return the car and start the next part of our trip at the World Expo.
Ajman has more going on than I had previously imagined. Between the fish market, fort museum and restaurants, you could easily spend a half day here. Umm Al Quwain, on the other hand, has little to offer the tourist besides peace and quiet.
Sharjah is considerably larger than the other two Emirates and has plenty to offer a tourist. The museums, souks, beaches and neighborhoods can take up an entire day if not more. It seemed like most tourists came on day trips from Dubai. If you are Muslim and or traveling with a family, Sharjah could be a better option for you.