How Sharjah's airport showed the emirate the world

Thanks to a combination of politics and one sheikh's vision the era of modern air travel first took wing in Sharjah.

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In 1931, the British Empire had a problem. It was summed up by the title of a secret air ministry report submitted to the cabinet in July 1931: "Threatened interruption of the operation of the England-India air service between Basrah and Karachi". In 1928, after only "difficult and protracted negotiations", the Persian government had granted a three-year permit to allow Imperial Airways - the fledging forerunner of British Airways - to use a coastal route along the eastern shore of the Gulf.
The anonymous briefing left the cabinet in no doubt as to the importance of "the key trunk route of the Empire ... important as it is of itself, it constitutes also the first stage of the route to the Straits Settlements and Australia". Its whole future, added the report, was "now endangered by Persian intransigence" and the only other possible route "lies along the Arabian coast of the Gulf, which is for the most part barren [and] inhospitable".
The most suitable place for an airport, thought the Air Ministry, was Ras al Khaimah, where, with the co-operation of the sheikh, "the Royal Air Force have in fact made frequent use of his territory". But there were snags; the sheikh drew the line at the setting up of a regular civil route and the British were refused permission. Despite more than 100 years of trucial peace between the British and the tribes of the Arabian Gulf littoral, the sheikhs were still wary of losing control of their territory.
The Trucial Arabs, wrote Group Captain A McDonald, a Royal Air Force pilot in the Arabian Peninsula at the time, feared that if the British marked out a landing ground they would be assuming control or pursuing some ulterior objective. On top of that, he conceded, the aircraft must have been quite a sight to the local population, and alarming for their herds; some "had never previously seen Europeans at all, let alone those noisy mechanical horrors they brought with them".
After Ras al Khaimah turned them down, the British went to the ruler of Dubai, who also refused permission. It was then, says Mohammed al Naibari, an administrative assistant at Al Mahatta Museum in Sharjah, that Sheikh Sultan bin Saqr Al Qasimi, the ruler of Sharjah, made an offer of land to the southeast of the town. He would charge a monthly fee of 800 rupees - paid in silver coin - plus an additional five rupees for each aircraft that landed. It was an offer the British could not refuse. Work started immediately and the first aircraft - Hanno, one of the large four-engine British-made Handley Page HP42 biplanes, then the last word in imperial air travel - touched down on October 5, 1932, on its way to India with four passengers on board.
The coming of the airliners brought mixed blessings to Sharjah, which, like the other emirates, relied on trade, fishing and pearls for its livelihood; the oil boom was still decades away and, with the development of culturing techniques in Japan, the pearl industry of the Gulf was in its death throes. The airport was a welcome source of income. At the same time, says Mr al Naibari, the airport exposed the population to modern technology and the social conventions of the West. Developing the area around the airfield for the comfort of passengers and staff, the British opened a pharmacy and a medical clinic in Al Mahatta, which were available to the public.
Aircraft and their crews and passengers stayed overnight, which generated business; donkeys carried provisions for the base from the town, some three kilometres away, and traders from a wide area travelled by camel to sell their wares to the visitors. On the other hand, passengers began to wander into town, sometimes outraging local sensibilities. "Passengers at Sharjah have begun going into the town, one lady passenger doing so clad in beach pyjamas," wrote Trenchard Craven Fowle, the British political resident in the Gulf, in a letter to Imperial Airways in London in March 1933. "However suitable the latter garb may be in its right place, that place is obviously not Sharjah. It must be remembered that the people of Sharjah have not up to now been accustomed to having strangers, especially ladies, wandering about their bazaars."
Guests were accommodated in a guesthouse built alongside the runway. Perhaps it was the barbed wire that ringed the perimeter and the Sheikh's force of armed guards that earned the airfield complex the nickname the Sharjah Fort Hotel. "There is electric light, refrigeration, showers, and all modern conveniences," wrote Hudson Fysh, the managing director of the Australian airline Qantas, who made a stopover in 1933. "Outside the barbed-wire entanglements were about 200 of the most magnificent Arab[s] ... it is possible to imagine. Apparently they were quite friendly, but a feeling of safety was provided by the separating wire."
According to Air Outpost, a 10-minute film made about Sharjah airfield in 1937, the complex of guest rooms and offices had been "built in the shape of a square fort as a precaution against possible but improbable raids by wandering tribes of Bedouin"; an armed guard from the Sheihk's retinue stood watch over the base - and the aircraft as they were serviced overnight. On arrival, Fysh met "the captain of the guard, a gorgeous fellow requiring a Reynolds [Joshua, the portrait artist] to describe the richness of his dress and accoutrements, from his deep red headdress, well-filled cartridge belt, and silver-worked curved dagger scabbard to his sandalled feet." Not every visitor enjoyed Fysh's next introduction, to the ruler, "a most colourful person, with direct, piercing eyes and a rich dress set off by a beautifully worked, gold-mounted sword and scabbard". And, added Fysh, "when one speaks of gold in Arabia it means solid gold".

He and his group "were entertained on the ceremonial platform in front of the sheikh's mud-walled village stronghold by a colourful group of head men. A huge copper tray of fresh dates, figs, and mangoes was placed before us. The mangoes were cut with a knife, which the sheikh produced from his belt and passed round. The visitors ate first, and then the hosts." Although most of the passengers on the India run were civil servants or businessmen, there were a handful of wealthy tourists, including women, who flew the route for pleasure or adventure. Travel on the slow, low-altitude, daylight flights, that cruised at between 150 and 170kph and, with a maximum range of about 800km, frequent stops for refuelling, was a luxurious indulgence, advertised by Imperial Airways as "sightseeing from the air".

Imperial commissioned eight of the Handley Page HP42s to fly the route. The passengers enjoyed plush upholstered seats, bars, smoking lounges and wooden panelling and, in an age when air travel could be deafeningly loud, near-silent cabins. After a flight in July 1933, the Countess of Willingdon, wife of the Viceroy of India, wrote: "It was as silent as travelling in a Pullman [train] carriage." Seats had to be reserved months in advance; only five passengers could be accommodated on each flight to India, a service that ran five times a week. A one-way ticket from London to Sharjah cost £84; Brisbane, Australia, could be reached for £160, with all fares inclusive of "accommodation, meals, surface transport, and tips en route".

None of the Handley Page aircraft that once landed at Sharjah survive. Hengist was destroyed in a fire in a hangar in Karachi in 1937 and the surviving seven aircraft were all pressed into service with the RAF at the outbreak of the war. All met untimely ends - and 1940 was a particularly bad year for the fleet; Hanno - Sharjah's first visitor in 1934, and the star of the film Air Outpost - and Heracles were destroyed together on the ground in England during a gale. The same fate also befell Hadrian, and Horsa crashed and burnt in England that same year.

Mystery, however, still surrounds the loss of Hannibal, which disappeared on March 1, 1940, en route from Calcutta to London, with the loss of all four crew and the four passengers, including Group Captain Harold Whistler, a British First World War fighter ace. A last message was received from the aircraft as it crossed the Gulf of Oman, estimating arrival at Sharjah in about half an hour. It never arrived and, despite extensive searches on land and sea, no trace of the aircraft was ever found.

The Imperial Airways routes were celebrated in the 1930s on a series of cigarette cards, including one showing an aircraft at Sharjah, the stop between Bahrain, 550 kilometres away, and Gwadar in India (now Pakistan), 650 kilometres distant. Air travel had cut the journey time from London to India from three weeks by sea to less than a week. "4,140 miles from London," read the caption, "we come to the end of our day's air journey ... the Sheikh of Sharjah ... is keenly interested in the services ... The presence of a guard here reminds us of our remoteness from civilisation."

The site is no longer remote. Like the rest of the UAE, Sharjah has developed at an exponential rate and in the three-quarters of a century since the airfield was built the city has expanded and swallowed it whole. On January 1, 1977, Sharjah International Airport was opened 10km east of the old airfield. Today, it handles 1,800 aircraft and 100,000 passengers a month and, strategically located close to seaports on both the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, and within a few kilometres of five of the other six emirates, it is a major regional cargo centre.

Back in the city, the old runway has disappeared beneath King Abdul Aziz Road. The Imperial Airways guesthouse can still be seen, two blocks to the north of the road, at the end of 27th Street. Next to it is the control tower, built when the RAF took over the airfield at the outbreak of the Second World War, and the modern building that houses Al Mahatta Museum, which celebrates the emirate's aviation history. The control tower, once a solitary landmark in the desert, now looks out incongruously over the backstreets of the bustling city.