Sharjah – Hidden Gem of the Middle East

By Anna Ray, International Exchange Programs Advisor,
Office of International Exchange Programs, American University of Sharjah

This is me 5 years ago. I’m in a shopping cart.

At the time the picture was taken, Dubai Mall was still a gaping pit in the sand and Mall of the Emirates had just opened (45 minutes away with good traffic). There was no metro.

What I’m saying is, Dubai didn’t have a whole lot going on, and we were in Sharjah.



That’s how it was when I was at the American University of Sharjah (AUS), but that’s not how it is anymore. (I know this because none of my students have embezzled shopping carts.) Dubai Mall is thriving, the metro is complete, clean and functional, and AUS offers shuttles to the nearest station 6 nights a week. You’re in for a good experience.

But not because AUS is only 20 minutes from Dubai (which now has a lot going on and is easy to get to). You’re in for a good experience because AUS is small and unique and jam-packed with interesting students.

Even the rules, however stifling they seem at first, somehow work to bring out the best AUS can offer.

AUS main building

The curfew, for instance. You have to sign in to the dorms at midnight on weeknights and 1 AM on weekends. It’s kind of lame, yes, but mostly it’s kind of awesome. I recommend spending less time in Dubai and more time in the dorms. Dubai is a city with really cool stuff to see and do—and I hope you see and do as much as you can cram in—but Dubai will always be there. Get to know your dormmates. Your experience will be richer for it.

My freshman roommate was Nigerian but had lived all over the world. She prayed 5 times a day and studied to explicit rap lyrics. She was awesome, and she introduced me to a ton more interesting people I wouldn’t have otherwise met.

I don’t remember how Amal and I became friends, I only remember that I used to go to her room for help with Arabic. One time she offered me Yemeni raisins and not long after I that I spent a month in Yemen, studying Arabic in Sana’a during the week and traveling with her family on the weekends. Now she’s at Columbia on a Fulbright.

female dorms, AUS

I spent many late nights up in the computer lab getting to know new people, and many more in friends’ rooms being introduced to new foods and Arabic words, to customs and superstitions. Because there’s nothing to do in the dorms, all you can do is talk to each other. And it’s not like talking in a restaurant or mall, or at a party, where there’s other people and noise and distractions, where you’re dressed up and spending money. You’re at home in the dorms, and even though sometimes it seems more like a hospital, there’s a certain comfort there—a familiarity—that makes conversations a little more open, that makes people a little easier to get to know.

Spend time in the dorms. You can go back to Dubai, but you may never again live with so many interesting people. *

male dorms, AUS

When we talk about how interesting our people are, we like to cite the 80+ nationalities represented here. I don’t. It’s a pretty poor measure of diversity, really.

Two of my best friends at AUS were a Palestinian-Californian who studied in the UAE and visited her family in Kuwait and Jordan on holidays, and a Malaysian-Iowan who grew up in Malaysia, Kuwait and the UAE. This place is crazy diverse. So diverse that nationality—the passport one carries—is just one small detail.

I met students who had never been to the US, but knew American movies and music better than I did, and indeed had learned English from watching subtitled television programs. (For real.)

In my very first semester of college, I had long blonde hair–almost down to my waist. In my 8 AM econ class I sat next to an Emirati guy who told me I was the first girl with yellow hair he’d ever seen outside of TV. It was a strange kind of honour, being the first real life blonde.

My first roommate wore hijab; my second roommate wore niqab. I had classmates and friends who prayed, and some who didn’t, and many who stopped or started. Some wore jeans and others wore saris. Some had been speaking English their whole lives. Others could hardly write a paragraph. There’s royalty at AUS, honest-to-goodness princes and princesses and sheikhs and sheikhas, and there are commoners like me and you.

AUS is unlike any program in the world, and way different from any program in the Middle East. That’s a bad thing if you’re looking for an Arabic immersion program. It’s a great thing if you’re looking for just about anything else. You can study Arabic, travel the region, talk global issues with students from all over the world, and play basketball for the university. This is a really great program if you’re interested in the Gulf, and it’s a great vantage point for viewing regional politics and the modern Middle East.

But you don’t have to come here for the Middle East. We have an AACSB-accredited business school, an ABET-accredited engineering school, and the only NAAB-accredited architecture program outside North America.

AUS will be whatever you make it—shallow, deep, ruled by school, enriched by people, inhibited by rules, filled with travel or completely lousy.

Or it could be the best experience of your life.

To learn more about studying abroad with API in Sharjah, visit our website at


  *There’s a dress code, too (no bare shoulders or midriffs; nothing low-cut, tight or revealing; shorts/pants/skirts must come below the knee). It’s a little inconvenient but without it you wouldn’t see the fabulously-styled women in abbayas and heels (!). Alcohol is not allowed in Sharjah (this includes a prohibition against returning to campus intoxicated); neither is physical contact between men and women. 

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