The 11th Sharjah Biennial sprawls through more than a dozen venues in and around the emirate’s Heritage Area on the eastern bank of Sharjah Creek. (The Persian Gulf is visible in the background.)

The art world loves a spectacle and rewards provocateurs. Sharjah bans the sale of alcohol, enforces strict blasphemy laws, and has a reputation as the most conservative of the United Arab Emirates. They make an unlikely couple, but the opening of the 11th Sharjah Biennial recently brought an international group of artists, curators, critics, and other invitees to the small, oil-rich emirate just north of Dubai. Much of the matchmaking credit goes to Sheikha Hoor al Qasimi. The daughter of Sharjah’s longtime ruler, the sheikha holds an M.A. from London’s Royal College of Art and heads the emirate’s art foundation. She took over the biennial in 2003, and since then, has built it into an intelligent and influential exhibition focusing on artists from outside Europe and the United States.

It has not always gone well. After the 2011 biennial opened, Sharjah authorities deemed one work in the show offensive and fired the exhibition’s artistic director, Jack Persekian. This year’s curator, Yuko Hasegawa, director of Tokyo’s Museum of Contemporary Art, avoided material likely to rankle the monarchy and put together a frequently surprising—if uneven—exhibition that also includes a significant architecture component. Hasegawa titled the show, which runs through May 13, Re:emerge, Towards a New Cultural Cartography to emphasize its scope beyond the West, and she organized it around the concept of the courtyard, which she describes as a semi-public and semi-private space where conversations and ideas are typically exchanged. The extremely elastic theme allowed the curator to show a wide range of works by more than 100 artists, nearly 50 of which were commissioned specifically for the biennial.

The show steers clear of the sensational, and favoring smart over bombastic work makes for both a more interesting exhibition and one less likely to offend. But the best work still manages to be gutsy and to thoughtfully take up thorny, politically charged subjects. John Akomfrah’s superb The Unfinished Conversation, 2012, a three-channel video portrait of British cultural theorist Stuart Hall, tells its story through a triangulation of archival footage documenting the complexities of identity, race, and colonial legacy. The photographs in Ahmed Mater’s Desert of Pharan/Room with a View, 2011-23, uses an imposing scale and overpowering detail to capture the explosion of development around Mecca’s holy sites. A softer but hypnotic trio of video works by Charwei Tsai shows traditional spirituality, nature, and modern development colliding on a small Taiwanese island. And a quietly critical video projection, Dilbar, 2013, by Palme d'Or-winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Chai Siri follows a Bangladeshi worker living in the Emirates as he moves between a construction site and a labor camp, sleepwalking through dream-like scenes of development, wealth, and the vast desert.

Hasegawa spread the installation over four clusters of venues, including a complex of five new buildings by local architect Mona El-Mousfy and an outdoor cinema that Buro Ole Scheeren designed with Weerasethakul. She also asked three other architecture firms to design temporary pavilions for the biennial sites. Belgian firm OFFICE Kersten Gears David van Severen contributed three “oases” that each wrap a grid of palm trees in a rectangular metal screen, creating rational, Miesian boxes with fronds of unruly nature sticking out of the top—imagine the Farnsworth House with a mane of feral foliage. The small parks provide places to escape the desert sun on the walk between exhibition venues, while SANAA’s Bubble, 2013, literally a series of transparent Plexiglass spheres, provides a playful gathering place but little in the way of shade. Studio Mumbai’s duo of austere installations, Immediate Shelter, 2013, offer the lowest common denominator of refuge from the blazing heat, enclosing simple water sources with screened-in seating areas. Inside one of them, visitors bask around a mist-making device on a Sharjah afternoon like they would a campfire in a much colder climate.

El-Mousfy’s new exhibition spaces are the biennial’s biggest architectural surprise. She deftly inserted a group of five white boxes into the fabric of Sharjah’s Heritage Area—a historic quarter largely rebuilt in the last two decades. Along with new coral masonry walls, her cluster of gleaming sugar cubes turn the surrounding pedestrian alleys into warren of shaded passages that continues on a second-level roofscape. The maze-like orientation, based on research into area’s historic street plan, and the intimate scale of the complex makes the experience of the biennial unique. But in contrast to their historicist neighbors, the new buildings create that specificity with a Modernist vocabulary common to contemporary art spaces around the world.

The shift in style serves an important purpose for the emirate. If the faux-historic buildings tell a story about Sharjah’s past, the new facilities write its future into the neighborhood. They are the first phase in a major redevelopment project centered on Sharjah’s cultural district. The plan, scheduled for completion in 2025, includes significant residential and commercial components, but it is leading with the art spaces. And with good reason. El-Mousfy’s projects embody the credibility that the biennial has garnered abroad, and with them, the third-largest emirate has taken a step toward fashioning itself into a serious and cultured foil to glitzy Dubai and museum-crazy Abu Dhabi.

Whether in the long term Sharjah can successfully stake its identity on contemporary art while remaining politically and socially conservative—and whether artists and curators will continue to go along for the ride—will play out in future exhibitions. But this year’s biennial demonstrates that, for now, it’s a productive tension.