Elections in the UAE: the lucky 129,274

This guest post was contributed by Jenifer Fenton.

Some 469 people, including 85 women, will run for a seat on the United Arab Emirates’s Federal National Council (FNC), an advisory body, scheduled on September 24. Any Emirati national selected by the rulers of the Emirates to be part of the electoral college was eligible to register as a FNC candidate provided they are at least 25, in good standing with the law, and literate. Half the seats are up for election, the other half are appointed by the leadership of the UAE.  

In short, “chosen” Emiratis will soon be voting for half the members of a government body that has no legislative power.  What do you call that — cosmetic democracy or progressive empowerment?  

“This is a very sorry situation because on the one hand we want people to be encouraged to run for the FNC elections so they can have an opinion and share in the building of the nation,” Abdul Hamid Ahmad, the editor-in-chief of Gulf News, wrote recently in an editorial for the paper.  “While on the other hand, because of the limited role of the FNC, we take away from them one of the main tools for candidacy. The manifesto has no meaning.”   

In late September, 129,274 people — a number that falls far short of universal suffrage — will be allowed to vote in the FNC elections. The number is a significant increase from the last and only other elections of 2006, when 6,600 or so Emiratis were eligible.   The increase in the number of members shows the UAE is “committed to strengthening political participation and developing it in tune with the local culture”,  Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and Minister of State for Federal National Council Affairs Anwar Mohammed Gargash said.   

Ahmed Zaabi, a banker who registered to run in Abu Dhabi, thought everyone should be allowed to vote. He could not say much more as candidates cannot start campaigning until September 4.

It is unclear why certain people will be allowed to vote and others will not be — particularly in a country where the Supreme Council of Rulers, the hereditary leaders of each emirate, have executive and legislative power and can negate anything the FNC recommends.    

What we are seeing in the UAE is not liberal democracy, said Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics. But the UAE “hears what is happening in the world and it is adjusting… This is a step, a very tiny small step, in the right direction,” he said. “If you have billions of dollars to appease your population of course you postpone the problems.” But in order to prevent disturbances, to be proactive and to meet the demands of modern society, the Gulf countries need to take serious steps to create transparent societies and economies, Gerges said. This would serve the national interest in the short and long term.   

“The modern history of the Arab world has shown very clearly…that if you don’t have formal institutions, what you end up with is an institutional wasteland…The only way to build a modern society, including in the Gulf…is to institutionalize the relationship” between the rulers and the people. “No one is suggesting that you need to imitate fully the West,” Gerges added.   

There are 40 members of the FNC. Eight council members each from Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The smaller emirates of Sharjah and Ras Al Kaimah each have six. While Ajman, Umm Al Quwain and Fujairah are represented by four members. Half of the members will be elected on September 24 and the other half will be selected by the Emirati leadership

“We are given an opportunity to participate in the decision making process,” said Nasser Al-Shaikh, a prominent Emirati business man who registered to run in Dubai for the FNC. The FNC needs to have more power to be an active player, but authority is not granted overnight and there needs to be a gradual change, he said.

The FNC was set up under the provisional constitution when the UAE was established in 1971. Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the first president of the UAE, wanted there to be a gradual evolution of the state, according to Peter Hellyer, a historian who specializes in the UAE’s history. Over the years, the FNC and the nature of how the FNC was chosen would also evolve. Zayed saw a “role for popular participation for choosing members… and for Emiratis to play a more active role in government,” Hellyer said. Zayed did not specify when or how this should occur. While the FNC is an advisory body it does serve an important function, Hellyer said. It has real power “reviewing and vetting proposed legislation.” It has affected as much as 30 percent of legislation in past years, he added.

At its inception, the UAE’s style of government, including the FNC, combined traditional rule and modern institutional representation — but it is hard to see that this model can be indefinitely maintained.  Arguably there has been very little political participatory evolution in the UAE, but is this because the people are content with their leadership and a standard of living fueled by the wealth of this country -  or because the rulers who hold enormous power are reluctant to change?

The biggest challenge facing the FNC elections is voter turnout, Gargash, who joined Twitter to open up a direct line of communication, said.   If voter turnout is low, it will be hard to advocate for greater individual political power. Low turnout will seem an endorsement of the status quo — potential proof that political culture does not exist in the UAE. Nothing needs to change if the people are not calling for it.   Earlier this year, 133 Emiratis signed a petition asking the Emirati leadership for direct elections and for the FNC to have legislative powers.  Five men, some of whom signed that petition, are currently on trial charged with opposing the government.  But the only public protests in the UAE have been pro-government demonstrators outside the court who denounce the actions of the men on trial. 

While the UAE has an efficient government that provides for the needs of its small Emirati population, the Gulf is not exempt from the democratic trends engulfing the region, said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center.  People in Bahrain and Oman have turned out to protest in significant numbers. But “we shouldn’t assume that everyone has the same demand for democratic reforms.”  In the UAE there has not been a call for widespread democratic change or talks about redistributing power, but “people do want change,” Hamid said.

While the leadership in the UAE should not be compared to that of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen or Syria for a variety of reasons, it is a leadership that does not derive its authority from the people. It is not elected. And it has decided that not all of its people are ready for democratic participation — in fact, it believes that only 129,274 are.