Middle East

United Arab Emirates: Tentative Step to Greater Democracy

Voters fill out ballots at a polling station in Abu Dhabi before voting in the country's first elections. (Photo: Karim Sahib / AFP-Getty Images)

Political analysts expressed cautious optimism over the prospects for greater democracy in the United Arab Emirates ahead of the country's first parliamentary elections from Dec. 16 to Dec. 20.

The ruler's courts of each of the country's seven emirates handpicked 6,688 Electoral College members who will vote for half of the 40-member Federal National Council (F.N.C.), a parliamentary consultative body for the federal government.

"It's a new thing for the country. We didn't want to jump into a big process without first testing it on a smaller scale. So what we're doing is a microcosm of what will be a much more inclusive electoral process further down the road," said Lana Nusseibeh, director of media and communications at the United Arab Emirates Ministry of F.N.C. Affairs.

Set up in 1972, the F.N.C. "is not really a body with real teeth," said Nusseibeh. It does not have the power to draft or reject legislation, but only to send legislation back to the cabinet for amendment.

Since 1972, all 40 members of the F.N.C. have been appointed by the emirates' dynastic rulers. Now, for the first time, half of its members will be elected by selected members of the public.

Criteria for the selection of these voters included having to be emirates nationals, residing in the emirates, being over 25 and being literate.

The number of 6,688 voters was determined in multiples of a hundred based upon the number of seats each emirate holds in the F.N.C. Abu Dhabi and Dubai hold eight seats each, Sharjah and Ras al Khaymah hold six seats each and Al Fujayrah, Ajman and Umm al Qaywayn hold four seats each.

The other half of the F.N.C. will continue to be appointed by the rulers.

"It's a first step toward democracy," said Omar al-Hassan, chairman of the London-based Gulf Center for Strategic Research. "Of course I would like to see full elections that would represent all people, without having appointees to a council. But I am optimistic about the way things are moving."

With one polling station per emirate, the Electoral College Members will vote for 439 candidates — who are also members of the Electoral College. Healthcare, housing and education have emerged as key issues among the candidates, 65 of them women, vying for a place on the F.N.C.

Step by Step

Christian Koch, director of international studies at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, welcomed the "step by step" development of political institutions in the emirates.

"The government of the U.A.E. enjoys a high level of legitimacy among its population and doesn't see an urgent need to take broad steps toward overall democracy," said Koch.

"It is happy to take this initial step to build participatory avenues and institutions, and I believe the forces of globalization, communication and an increasingly well-educated youthful population will ensure these steps continue across the region."

The emirates' highest legislative and executive body is the Federal Supreme Council, constituted by the seven emirate's rulers, who select a president and vice president from its membership; the president, in turn, appoints the prime minister and cabinet.

There are no general elections in the emirates, but citizens may express their concerns directly to their leaders through traditional consultative mechanisms, such as the open majlis, or council.

The decision to elect 50 percent of the members of the F.N.C. was announced by President Sheik Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahayan in December 2005.

This decision was just the first phase of a three-stage process of transforming the political system in the emirates. Sheik Zayed also created a 12-member National Electoral Committee in August this year to oversee the electoral process.

In addition, Sheik Zayed outlined two other stages to be introduced in 2007 and beyond.

Stage two is the expansion of the F.N.C. to include a greater number of members to reflect the growth of the country's population. This stage would also include a re-evaluation of the role of the F.N.C. with a view to strengthening its role.

Once the F.N.C. has been expanded and empowered, stage three of the political reform process would allow all nationals in the country to vote for half the F.N.C.'s candidates.

Some analysts set the tentative first steps toward greater democracy in the emirates, a country in which there are no democratically elected institutions or political parties, against the rise of Islamists across the Gulf.

"The leaders may feel that for now this is the only right way to proceed with elections," said analyst al-Hassan. "Muslim extremists, whether in Iraq or Iran or Al Qaeda elements in the Gulf, are now very influential in the region and there are fears that they would dominate such councils if moderates were not guaranteed a place."

Elections in Bahrain

That was a view echoed by analysts observing the parliamentary election in the tiny island Gulf state of Bahrain earlier this month.

A first-round vote saw the country's Shiite Muslim majority opposition movement, Al Wefaq, which boycotted the election in 2002, take 16 of the 17 seats it contested, in an unprecedented challenge to pro-government Sunni parties.

In the run-off, rights groups complained of fraud after Shiite candidates won just 2 of 11 run-off races, leaving them 3 seats short of a majority, with Sunni parties retaining control of the 40-member elected parliament.

Shiites make up around 60 percent of Bahrain's population but, analysts say, have long been marginalized by a political institution that hands ultimate power of the state to its Sunni royal family.

"Any group that has been persecuted will eventually come out of persecution and make their presence felt," said Saeed Shehabi, a London-based Bahraini analyst. "I hope the ruling family now recognize the people of Bahrain have a right to express their views." © IRIN

[This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies.]