Dubai: Sharjah-based budget carrier Air Arabia has connected Sharjah with the European Union by launching flights to Athens, making the UAE's third largest emirate a new gateway in the region.

"Air transport is the life-blood of cultural, business and tourism exchange. Greece is the Arab world's main gateway to European Union and Balkan countries, and this service forms a key part of Sharjah's strategy to enhance its presence as one of the world's leading cultural, tourist and economic destinations," Shaikh Sultan Bin Ahmad Al Qasimi, chairman of the Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority (SCTDA), said in a speech delivered at a dinner reception in Athens to mark Air Arabia's service to the Greek capital.

The dinner was attended by the Greek Minister of Tourism, senior officials representing Greece's travel and tourism authorities, a number of ambassadors and members of diplomatic missions, and guests from the business and tourism communities.

Al Qasimi gave the opening address, followed by a speech by Air Arabia's representative. A documentary film in Greek about tourism and business features in Sharjah and a folk-art show were included in the programme.

"Sharjah is the third largest emirate in the UAE and has been in the past a hub of trade in the region, due to its strategic geographical location at the crossroads of major trade routes linking east and west.

Straddling the Arabian Gulf and the Indian Ocean, Sharjah is the gateway to the Arabian Gulf and Gulf of Oman.

Sharjah's reputation as the cultural capital of the UAE was reaffirmed by Unesco when it declared the emirate the cultural capital of the Arab world in 1998.

"Since that landmark date, the emirate has built on this recognition, attracting hosts of people who come to witness, experience, explore and discover the secrets of a unique Arabian lifestyle and Islamic culture," he said.

Al Qasimi went on to highlight Sharjah's rich and diverse cultural offerings, including museums, theatre and a Discovery Centre, as well as the emirate's industrial and economic importance.

"Sharjah is developing rapidly in many areas, and has all the financial, commercial and industrial facilities and infrastructure as well as investor-friendly climate expected of a modern city, making it an excellent option for business travellers as well.

"Today, Sharjah, with 19 industrial areas, accounts for almost 48 per cent of the UAE's industrial GDP, and we anticipate that this will continue to grow exponentially in the coming years," he said.