DUBAI – The oil-rich United Arab Emirates holds its second-ever polls next month after allowing many more citizens to vote, taking baby steps toward democracy in a state where virtually no one is pushing for quick change.
Eligible voters are picked by rulers of each of the seven sheikhdoms that comprise the UAE federation, using criteria that are not entirely clear. Candidates must come from the same hand-picked electoral college.
That list of names has been expanded from around 6,000 in the last elections in 2006 to about 129,000 for the upcoming polls, to elect half the members of a 40-strong Federal National Council (FNC) from among 469 candidates.
The council has no legislative powers.
“This is 100 percent positive,” said Emirati professor of political science Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, applauding the expanded list of names for elections slated for September 24.
“No doubt, in the historical context, this is an important and forward step… We should celebrate it,” he said.
The UAE rulers have pledged a gradual approach to political participation.
But after the youth-led “Arab Spring” that overthrew leaders in Tunisia and Egypt and rattled the regimes of others, the UAE announced an augmented list of eligible voters.
Among them, 35 percent are under 30 years-old, and about half the total number are women.
In total, 469 candidates from within the electoral college, including 85 women, have registered to run. Candidates must be above 25.
“This was a clever move… the youth were the driving force of the Arab Spring… the UAE and the Gulf are part of this Arab world and cannot be insulated from developments,” said Abdullah.
But he argued that, keeping people out of the electoral college creates a feeling of inequality among the disenfranchised.
“There are around 300,000 UAE citizens who should have the right to vote,” he said, adding that the question of why they had been exclused would remain.
The UAE and its energy-rich neighbour Qatar have each used their vast wealth to keep citizens happy, with both ranking among the world’s top countries in terms of income per capita.
Nationals in the UAE are estimated at only around 950,000, out of a predominantly foreign population estimated at between six and eight million.
“To move within a period of five years from having a national council fully appointed to a half-elected one, and from no elections at all to have a polling process in which a third of the population takes part is a good step,” argued Emirati columnist Mohammed al-Hammadi.
Fares Braizat, the head of Public Opinion Programme at the Doha-based Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies, argued that increasing the number of voters was a “significant step” given the history of the UAE, but was not enough.
“It remains far short from the threshold of the democratic political process of public participation and accountability, which entails universal suffrage to all citizens and accountability of public office holders through legislators,” he said.
The FNC serves only as an advisory body which has the authority to present recommendations to the government but cannot block legislation ratified by the Supreme Federal Council of the seven rulers.
“This is in response to the wider atmosphere of change in the Arab world, but it does not meet the expectations created by the momentum building across the region,” said Braizat, arguing that it was just a cosmetic “face-lift”.
But he acknowledged that the comfortable life provided for most citizens by their wealthy state reduces the urge to press for wider participation.
There is hardly any challenge to the legitimacy of the UAE ruling families, led by the Al-Nahayans of Abu Dhabi, whose late ruler Sheikh Zayed was the driving force behind grouping the old Trucial sheikhdoms in one state in 1971 after independence from Britain.
“I do not think that there is anyone who wants drastic changes in the UAE,” said Abdullah, stressing that the majority would “never” challenge the legitimacy of the ruling sheikhs.
Some 130 intellectuals and activists in March petitioned President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahayan to introduce universal suffrage and empower the FNC with legislative and regulatory prerogatives.
Five activists are being tried on charges of insulting the leadership and opposing the government system, among other charges. They pleaded not guilty.
“Demands here are very modest. The mood in the UAE in terms of demanding reforms is minimalist, and agrees with the government’s gradual approach. It is opposite to the revolutionary mood in other Arab countries,” Abdullah said.
There are also many who are “reluctant and not sure” about the need for democratisation, said Hammadi.
“Those who know that, realise that the gradual approach adopted by the government suits the UAE,” he said.