How a British engineer helped Sharjah's Ruler to build ports and airports that he hand-sketched

Mel Stewart spent decades working on projects for Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi – and received permanent residency for his hard work

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Like many people who moved to the UAE for work, Mel Stewart only planned to stay for a few years.

But life had a different plan for the British engineer.

Mr Stewart, 80, has spent more than four decades in Sharjah, working on some of the emirate's megaprojects.

Mr Stewart worked first as an engineer and then as trusted adviser to Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah, and had a front-row seat to the emirate's dizzying rise.

Now one of the few people to have been granted permanent residency, Mr Stewart reflected on a lifetime of working with the Ruler.

They just seem to have this knack, this foresight of doing things and getting it right

"They just seem to have this knack, this foresight of doing things and getting it right," he told The National.

"When I came here the population was about 40,000. Look at it now. Dubai was maybe a little bit more, and look at it now. Look at the infrastructure that's been developed.

"It's in their blood. That's the way they are – incredible. There's nowhere else in the world that has achieved what they have achieved in one lifetime."

Mr Stewart first moved to Sharjah in 1974 with British engineering company Halcrow, to work as an engineer on Port Khalid in Sharjah, intending to stay for only two years.

The city was then concentrated on the seafront Al Mujarrah district, with little development inland.

Sharjah ruler Dr Sultan bin Muhammad Al-Qasimi’s sketch of Sharjah Airport. Courtesy Mel Stewart

Parties were held at the old Royal Air Force base, which stretched from the old Al Mahatta Fort airport to the Flying Saucer building, as well as a smattering of hotels – including the Marbella Resort (opened by Spain's Prince Alfonso von Hohenlohe, with Sean Connery as guest of honour) and the Sharjah Carlton, with its lively nightclub.

But it was not all play. When he first began working with Sheikh Dr Sultan, Mr Stewart was impressed by the Ruler's hands-on approach. The Ruler would often visit the Port Khalid project and make suggestions. He understood technical drawings because he had a degree in agricultural engineering.

"He would be checking things, getting out the drawings and saying 'can we take out the breakwater and squeeze another berth in there?'. You couldn't believe it. You had to keep pinching yourself," Mr Stewart said.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 24 OCTOBER 2020. Mel Stewart, engineering advisor to the Ruler of Sharjah. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Marco Ferrari. Section: National.

Mr Stewart also describes a Ruler with a poetic streak. On one occasion in the 1970s, he took him on a hike up a mountain in Khor Fakkan to survey the area for a new port. Sheikh Dr Sultan picked up a stone and threw it towards the ocean, saying: "That's where I want the breakwater to go.”

"And he was right, Because of the wind and sea conditions. And we started building Khor Fakkan port," Mr Stewart said.

Mr Stewart also remembered that in 1975 the Ruler even sketched by hand the famous three-domed design for the new Sharjah airport that would open only two years later.

After work on Port Khalid finished in 1976, the Sharjah manager for Halcrow retired.

The company put forward several senior engineers as potential replacements. But Sheikh Dr Sultan stepped in and requested that Mr Stewart, "the man in the port", who was only 36 at the time, take the role.

In 1991, Mr Stewart was awarded an order of the British Empire, or OBE, for services to British commercial interests in the UAE.

Sheikh Dr Sultan learnt about the accolade and before Mr Stewart received it, the Ruler surprised him with a ceremony of his own – presenting him with a solid-gold "key to the city of Sharjah".

"It was a very moving occasion," Mr Stewart said. "His highness gazumped her highness and got in first. That was the pinnacle of my career."

When it came time for Mr Stewart to retire in 1998, Sheikh Dr Sultan requested he join him as an adviser.

He worked in the Ruler's office for another decade and when Mr Stewart retired he was granted permanent residency. His two children are now grown up and he lives in Sharjah to this day.

"It was such an interesting job – being responsible for implementation of all infrastructure projects in Sharjah and having a one-to-one relationship with his highness," Mr Stewart said.

One memorable project was assisting the Ruler as he improved the living conditions of a small mountain community of farmers in Wadi Hilu, near Kalba. The low-lying wadi would become sweltering in the summer, with no breeze. But the Ruler commissioned a Swedish mining company to remove parts of a nearby mountain, creating a level area, and constructing new housing where residents could feel the summer breeze.

In another expedition, he and a colleague walked for kilometres to reach the remote town of Nahwa to survey the area for a new road that would link it to the rest of the country. They told one of the residents, who was "over the moon".

"He explained that not so long ago, one of their people was ill and the only way they could get him to hospital was to take a door off and use it as a stretcher," Mr Stewart said.

Mr Stewart was instrumental in his work on Sharjah’s urban and desert road network, including the Sharjah to Kalba and Sharjah to Khor Fakkan motorways, and designing infrastructure for the University City of Sharjah.

He was involved in the development of Sharjah Creek, Khalid Lagoon and Al Khan and Al Mamzar lagoons. He was also involved in work on Hamriyah Port.

Mr Stewart is now semi-retired, working as a special adviser to Halcrow (now Jacobs) in the mornings, while his afternoons are spent on the golf course or in the gym.

His legacy lives on in the major projects that have taken Sharjah to new heights.