Piers Grimley Evans discovers culture and leisure at the heart of Sharjah.
Not so much an emirate as a state of mind — a gentle zzzz to counterbalance Dubai's frantic buzz.
I have often envied its peaceful, contented folk. After inching their way painfully back from Dubai, they plunge gratefully into its aura of enchanted rest.
Free from the distractions of bars, shisha or fun, they rest in perfect tranquillity until their alarm clocks send them shuffling once again down Ettihad Road to the Land of the Living.
Yet now — as so often in life — a man with a French accent has come to spoil it all.
"We want to create a neighbourhood," says Daniel During.
"We want to position ourselves like Montmartre or Covent Garden. We want to encourage performers and pavement artists."
Despite his aquiline nose and general air of angular, Gauloise-hoovering intensity, During is actually Argentine.
His pronunciation acquired its dodgy Gallic edge in a transcontinental ascent of the world of hospitality.
In 1979, when just 19, he left his homeland for a photography degree in Germany.
In the event, he ended up working his way from dishwasher to hospitality consultant, mainly in France.
He came to the UAE in 1997 to work on the Pyramids section of the Wafi City.
Over the next four years he opened a further 18 outlets before setting up his own company.
All his know-how is now coming into play in one of the most challenging projects so far — to create a leisure destination that will attract fun-seekers from across the UAE to sleepy Sharjah.
When it is complete, Qanat Al Qasba project will encompass 40 retail and service operations.
So far, only a few of these have opened. But it is already striking enough — especially at night when bathed in the eerie glow of floodlights.
A cultural hub
Location also adds to the impact. It is surrounded by a sandy gap in the cityscape that developers have still to plug.
For now, little apart from long rows of parked cars suggests you have arrived. Then, you wander through an arch and find yourself in an entirely different city.
The heart of the project, which was officially inaugurated in April, is a canal.
On each side run glistening white Andalusia-inspired terraces fronted by broad tiled walkways currently dotted with kiosks selling gooey Arabic ice cream and carpets bearing hyper-realist portraits of Bedouin horsemen.
The two banks are linked by a humped footbridge.
On one side stands a 1,000-seater yellow and blue-striped circus marquee and on the other a giant 60-metre tall observation wheel studded with twinkling bulbs.
On a Friday, even at 10 o'clock in the evening, a steady trickle of Emarati families still promenade along the walkways.
Many are queuing outside the marquee, where the China State Circus is about to perform.
From ticket sales to the wheel, During estimates that 10,000 have visited during the entire day.
For During, who has been working on the project since mid-2004, this is clearly a good start. But it is not just about numbers.
The aim is a neighbourhood that blends popular attractions with high-minded cultural endeavour.
"The project is not commercial," he says.
"The aim is to create a cultural hub. But culture doesn't sell so we need to marry culture and entertainment. We developed our concept to match the vision of His Highness Dr Shaikh Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qasimi, Member of the Supreme Council and Ruler of Sharjah. He wanted to inject life into the area, but didn't want anything cheesy."
Qanat Al Qasba's cerebral offerings are concerts, lectures and exhibitions in its Arts and Antiques Bazaar.
Its plush 400-seater theatre is currently hosting a weekly series of Arab films specially subtitled in English.
Next week the centre will host jazz concert and master classes featuring French jazz singer Anne Ducros.
The fun and edification combo also cuts horizontally through the pearly terraces.
Their upper storeys house a variety of cultural entities and charities. On the ground floor During is mixing a perfect blend of cafés and restaurants.
"To create a reason to come here, we are trying to get concepts and brands not available in Dubai," he says.
"There are going to be a few chains, but we are trying to attract individual outlets."
But hitting on a winning hospitality formula is clearly also a personal passion.
"I don't believe in ‘if it isn't broke, don't fix it.' I am always visiting restaurants to tweak or change," he says.
This may explain why he keeps the hours of an insomniac.
It is midnight when we finally sit down at 1.618, one of the four restaurants already open, and an advert for the quirky individuality he is after.
Named after the golden mean it imaginatively melds Mediterranean and Arabic cuisine.
Once seated, During pulls a fat cigar out of a leather case and initiates a leisurely discussion of what to order.
No apparent mercy for a hack operating on a more conventional diurnal cycle.
Anyway, I ask, so you really expect people to go to Sharjah for fun?
"I feel there is not much for families with young kids in the UAE," says During.
"There are lots of UAE nationals who are not comfortable in places where alcohol is on sale. We are also aiming to attract the people I would call residents — not expats — but people who go to their original countries in the summer but when they get back to the UAE feel they are coming home. As an Argentinian I feel very close to Arabic culture. For example, we keep the same hours. We don't like to go to bed early," he says.
No kidding. As we chat on, outside I see the crowd pour out of the circus and gradually disperse.
In the restaurant, we are now alone apart