Chris Leadbeater is impressed by the cultural charms of Sharjah

At first glance, it looks like something you might find on the edge of Milton Keynes. It's a roundabout. A large one. Three lanes. A swirl of white lines. The roar of traffic.

Just as I'm trying to figure out why anyone would bring me to such a place and tell me it's a tourist attraction, I get a clear intimation that I am not in Buckinghamshire. A giant Mercedes, windows blacked out, prowls around the outside lane. Followed by a second. And a third. It's then that I spot the constellation of grand structures around the perimeter. In the centre, a 50ft sculpture of an open Koran dominates the scene.

This, then, is my introduction to Sharjah. Here where Highway 88, which cuts right across the third largest of the United Arab Emirates, collides with the capital city (also called Sharjah). And this is the city's opening gambit: the Cultural Roundabout.

The buildings that cling to its hem are, in turn, the Cultural Palace (used for concerts), the Ministry of Culture, the Ahmad Bin Hanbal Mosque and the Diwan – government offices with the best view of the middle.

It is a deliberate alignment, designed to imply that the Sheikh of Sharjah reads ceaselessly from Islam's holy tome. The overall statement is clear: "We have depth and learning. We are not like the others."

And indeed, Sharjah is not like the six other emirates. While Abu Dhabi has been conjuring elaborate Grand Prix tracks in the desert and Dubai has been throwing up skyscrapers with merry abandon, Sharjah has been going back to basics. Until as recently as the late 1970s, it was a package tourism destination of gaudy resorts and cheap bars. But then came the change: in 1979 alcohol was banned and Sharjah became the only dry emirate, adopting a calm, conservative existence.

Perhaps this is down to geography. Four of the six other emirates stare at the capitalist west from their beaches on the Persian Gulf, but Sharjah, as the only emirate to boast a coastline on each side of the peninsula, also looks east, out into the Gulf of Oman.

Ultimately, there is a sense here of life beyond strip malls and artificial islands built to look like palm trees. On a hazy Saturday afternoon, I stand on the edge of one of these east-coast beaches, in the town of Khor Fakkan. It is a lovely three-mile stretch, complemented by a long grassy corridor where local families gather for picnics. Children pad about under the watchful eyes of matriarchal figures cloaked in black, while the menfolk loaf in white-robed clusters.

Sadly, it's too late in the weekend for me to sample another of Sharjah's east-coast spectacles. The small town of Khor Kalba, 10 miles south, is the last outpost in the UAE that stages Arabic bullfighting – but only on a Friday, when crowds well up on the seafront to watch a sporting contest of an alternative hue. More a taurine version of sumo wrestling than the blood-letting favoured in Spain, each fight sees two bulls come together in a rudimentary ring. The aim is for one to push the other outside the circle of sand – a remarkably chaste form of combat that, nonetheless, is extremely popular.

It is in its west coast capital city that the emirate reveals it is decidedly different from its siblings. It is not that Sharjah is short of money – like Abu Dhabi and Dubai, it has oil and gas reserves, though in far smaller quantities. It is the way it chooses to spend it.

In 1998, Unesco bestowed upon Sharjah the title "Cultural Capital of the Arabic World" – an honour that has become a matter of great prestige for Sheikh Sultan bin Mohamed Al-Qasimi, the Emir. Hence the investment in the grandstanding Cultural Roundabout, and the Heritage District, where 17 museums are crammed into the low coral-stone houses that once constituted the city's old quarter.

It is a blazingly hot day when I wander through this dusty enclave, and the near-total absence of shadow as the midday sun hammers down only adds to the impression that this place is a theme-park version of a 19th-century cowboy town on the Mexican border. Indeed, the smooth walls and neat squares wear their recent reconstruction all too obviously. It is easy to be cynical. The Calligraphy Museum – on, naturally, Calligraphy Square – proffers a meagre clutch of pens and parchment, and advertises its wares with a burnished brass plaque that bears the proud legend "Established 2002".

But as I explore further, genuine nuggets of history emerge. Bait Al Naboodah was the home of an important pearl-fishing family, and still feels like it. Occupied from 1834 to 1970, its wide courtyard gives on to cool chambers of wooden beams, Iranian carpets and cooking pits where earthenware pots stand idle. It could be in Damascus.

Two blocks away, the Museum of Islamic Heritage is genuinely impressive, doing with a defunct Eighties souk what the Musée D'Orsay has done with a Parisian railway station. Inside, 5,000 exhibits – illuminated texts, Mamluk pottery, Ottoman trinkets – carry you through 1,400 years of Islamic history (plenty of the information is in English). There is respite from the heat, too, in its café, below the central dome, where an intricate mosaic depicts the universe.

Then there are the souks themselves which, if hardly the lions' dens of Marrakech or Tangier, aren't the sanitised commercial temples of Dubai either. Souq Al-Arsa, though aimed at tourists, has a hint of the authentic – dark corners where the elderly talk, the aroma of cardamom, a gruff roar as shopkeepers call to each other.

At the Date Souk, meanwhile, Arabic men, presumably worth millions, paw and press fruit worth pennies, checking for quality. Amitesh, a stallholder from Kerala, sells me a kilogram of his finest for 30 dirhams (£5). "Ah, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown," he says after we have established my nationality. Why has he come to Sharjah, I ask in return. "Good life here," he smiles, then pauses, struggling with the language. "Interesting."

It probably isn't the word he was searching for. But it does the job.

Travel essentials: Sharjah

The writer travelled to Sharjah with Cox & Kings (020-7873 5000; ). A seven-night private "Emirates Explorer" journey through the United Arab Emirates that takes in Sharjah (as well as Abu Dhabi, Ajman and Ras Al Khaimah), costs from £1,595 per person including flights from Heathrow to Abu Dhabi with Etihad Airways, accommodation with breakfast, transfers and all excursions.

Sharjah Tourism: