Home > News > Election Report: United Arab Emirates
155 views 5 min 0 Comment

Election Report: United Arab Emirates

- September 21, 2011

This is a a guest post from Zachary Smith, an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the opinion editor of the Daily Nebraskan.

This week, the Arab Middle East will hold its first elections since the beginning of the so-called “Arab Spring.” While not held in a democracy—the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is rated “not free” by “Freedom House”:http://freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?page=22&year=2011&country=8157—the elections are in some measure a response to the events in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Syria and neighboring Bahrain, as well as smaller protests region-wide.

A council of the seven emirs, or princes, rules the UAE, a federation consisting of the highly industrialized emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, as well as the poorer emirates Ras Al Khaimah, Sharjah, Fujairah, Umm Al Quwain and Ajman. This Supreme Council has effective veto power over all legislation; in particular, the rulers of Abu Dhabi and Dubai can each individually veto anything. This leaves the legislature, the Federal National Council (FNC), with relatively little power.

Though the FNC, “according to the Gulf News”:http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/uae/government/the-powers-held-by-the-fnc-1.866834, has no “final say in passing, amending, or rejecting legislation or the federal budget,” it does play an important advisory role, drawing on the long traditions of shura and majlis in the Arab world. When asked to explain why Islam is compatible with democracy, most Arabs point to these two principles. Shura translates as “consultative council,” referring to early days of the Islamic caliphate, where rulers consulted with groups of advisors. Majlis translates as “legislature” in modern Arabic, but referred to a tribal practice where leaders met with individual supplicants and groups, no matter their status in society. In the Gulf States, this principle “still applies”:http://gulfnews.com/opinions/columnists/gulf-majlis-culture-forms-fabric-of-society-1.801872, and many (unelected) government leaders continue to set aside weekly time to meet with citizens.

Thus, the FNC’s small amount of legislative power is understandable in the broader cultural context. What is notable about this round of elections, though, is the massive increase in the electoral college. In 2006, in the UAE’s first elections, “just under”:https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ae.html 7,000 people were allowed to vote, and only just over 1,000 women. This year, the electoral college was expanded to “129,274”:http://www.arabist.net/blog/2011/8/21/elections-in-the-uae-the-lucky-129274.html, and UAE officials stress that “46 percent”:http://www.albawaba.com/business/pr/fnc-elections-ideal-opportunity-uae-women-says-gargash-392256 of the electorate is female.

Though far from universal suffrage, as roughly a million people in the Emirates are citizens, the move to include more people in the democratic process represents a step toward democratization, though Gulf leaders continually plug speeches with a “long, slow path to democracy”:http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/08/21/us-emirates-elections-idUSTRE77K0Z220110821. The electorate, using “new electronic voting technology”:http://www.tradearabia.com/news/LAW_204653.html complete with voter ID cards, will choose 20 of the 40 seats up for election from 469 candidates. The Supreme Council appoints the other 20. In the last election, one woman won a seat electorally, and the Council appointed ten women.

Still, Emirati citizens today, particularly in the booming metropolises of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, enjoy a tremendously high standard of living as a result of the country’s vast oil and natural gas resources. This has protected the country from the protests that have arisen throughout the Middle East. The poorer emirates, though, complain that they have been “left behind”:http://www.arabist.net/blog/2011/8/11/the-united-but-not-equal-arab-emirates.html in economic development, and perhaps the UAE’s leaders see the winds blowing in favor of democracy. “Op-ed columnists”:http://gulfnews.com/opinions/columnists/fnc-s-real-success-1.868114 in local papers stress not the FNC’s powers, but the election’s existence and the step it represents toward democracy, political activism and the media.