The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Elections in the Gulf 2/2: UAE

Two elections are taking place in the Gulf — in Bahrain and in the United Arab Emirates — on Saturday. The political environments could not be more different, but the results of both elections are not expected to change much. Yesterday, we looked at Bahrain. Today, we focus on the UAE.

In the UAE there is no opposition and the candidates — 468 of them — are running for a body that has no legislative power. So what are people focused on? Turnout.

In the run up to the Federal National Council election the state run news agency WAM carried statements stressing the importance of voters exercising their right at the ballots. UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan called for broad and active participation in the elections. Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum echoed the call a day later.

Even more clearly, Anwar Mohammed Gargash, state minister for FNC, said:

There is no historic cumulative for the electoral process in the UAE to assess a number of voters who will turn up, but the measure of success will be the percentage of participation.

Not all Emirati citizens can vote: only roughly 130,000 who were handpicked by the rulers of the seven Emirates are electors. These voters, half of which are women, are also only voting for 20 FNC members, with the other 20 appointed by the state. The majority of those campaigning — only the electoral college was eligible to contest a seat — for the FNC have been “hasty and unprofessional,” according to an editorial by Abdul Hamid Ahmad, editor-in-chief of Gulf News. “Many have been confused and only a handful have been focused on their mission.” But the candidates should not be blamed because campaigning, which was limited to about three weeks, is a new exercise and they have not had much assistance, the paper adds. Gulf News too notes turnout is key.

If voter turnout is high it is possible that the electoral college will be expanded, but if the turnout is low the same is also possible. Every adult Emirati could be eligible to vote for members of the FNC within eight years, Gargash, the state minister for the FNC, told The National. But 2019 seems very far off.

The reality is that the government has taken a small step toward democracy but it has not done anything substantial to empower its citizens. The Supreme Council of Rulers — the heads of the seven Emirates — hold all the power, something the elections will not change. There has been talk of empowering the FNC, but there has not been talk of limiting the powers of the Supreme Council — and the two go hand in hand.

Christopher Davidson, a Gulf expert at Durham University, says it is not entirely clear what the purpose of the exercise really is — beyond shoring claims that change is on its way:

What the question is, is what are people turning out for? Not very much. [A good turnout] plays into the regime’s hands because they want to get headlines, they want to be able to give the impression that things are moving forward on this gradual path toward democracy that they keep talking about… This is something which doesn’t come anything near crossing any red line, a red line being giving the FNC any legislative power at all or even robust power of questioning.

It does not appear that the majority (or even a large minority) of society is calling for the rulers’ power to be curbed. A few did though. UAE activist Ahmed Mansoor was among 133 others who asked the Emirati leadership for direct elections and for the FNC to have legislative powers.

He and four others are now in jail for opposing and insulting the country’s leadership. Article 176 of the penal code states:

Any person who insults by any means of publicity the president of the state, its flag or national emblem shall be punishable by confinement for a period not exceeding five years.

Article 8 of the code expanded the list to include the crown princes of each emirate and others.

The trial of the five activists continues next week, the outcome of which may be more telling than the FNC elections. “The whole thing is a farce,” Davidson said. “Five people who actually called for real parliament with proper legislative powers with full elections and God forbid a constitutional monarchy — they’re actually in prison.”

Correction: The last quote by Christopher Davidson initially erroneously read "God forbid a constitutional democracy." It has been corrected to "God forbid a constitutional monarchy". We apologize for the typo.