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United Arab Emirates (UAE) - Politics

The introduction to the UAE Constitution makes clear the UAE founding fathers, commitment to democracy. The Constitution preamble states that the Constitution should be used to "move forward toward comprehensive democratic parliamentary governance, in an Arab Islamic society free of fear and worry".

Although the United Arab Emirates is a wealthy and economically advanced country, an open political system and political competition do not exist. The UAE has no elections, no political parties, and no trade unions. The existing appointed consultative bodies that debate and adopt policies are non-transparent. Nevertheless, the UAEG and its principal rulers enjoy a high degree of political legitimacy among much of the population as a result of successful long-term policies to distribute oil wealth and educational and employment opportunities to citizens.

The law does not provide citizens the right to peacefully change their government. Federal executive and legislative power is in the hands of the Federal Supreme Council, a body composed of the hereditary rulers of the seven emirates. It selects from its members the country’s president and vice president. Decisions at the federal level generally represented consensus among the rulers, their families, and other leading families. The ruling families, in consultation with other prominent tribal figures, also choose new emirate rulers. Thanks to their state-sponsored cradle-to-grave welfare systems, the UAE and other Gulf Arab monarchies have largely avoided the Arab Spring unrest which unseated long-serving rulers elsewhere.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a federation of seven semiautonomous emirates with a resident population of approximately 8.5 million of whom an estimated 11.5 percent are citizens. The rulers of the seven emirates constitute the Federal Supreme Council, the country’s highest legislative and executive body. The emirates are under patriarchal rule with political allegiance defined by loyalty to tribal leaders, to leaders of the individual emirates, and to leaders of the federation. There are limited democratically elected institutions and no political parties.

The UAE's decentralized federal political system generates consensus-based decision-making through the co-existence of traditional and modern forms of government. The UAE's seven emirates must agree on the passage and implementation of new laws. Informal mechanisms such as the UAE leaders' open majlises that allow nationals to voice opinions and seek redress have historically provided a degree of government responsiveness to its citizens. UAE citizens constitute a mere 15 percent of the population, with guest workers from South Asia and the Arab world greatly outnumbering Emirati nationals.

Dubai and the other emirates had functioning "bedouocracies" - the term for the existing political system of rule by hereditary tribal chiefs who hold daily "open courts" or majlises, during which all male citizens can have direct access to their leaders, should they desire it. Rulers' majlises are all-male events. This system amounts to a type of direct representation that, they feel, serves the UAE's small population quite well and obviates the immediate need to import western-style democracy. The need for caution was mentioned frequently by even the strongest backers of increased political participation in the UAE, mainly due to concerns about the "destabilizing" effects of direct elections, which some observers believe had been evident in Kuwait and Bahrain.

The idea of electing public officials is not new in the UAE. In the 1970s, Ajman emirate had several councils whose heads were elected by the general public. Before his father replaced him as his heir apparent in June 2003, Ras Al Khaimah Crown Prince Sheikh Khalid bin Saqr Al Qasimi had openly suggested that UAE citizens be allowed to vote for Federal National Council [FNC] members. A limited, appointed electorate participates in periodic elections for the FNC. Citizens can express their concerns directly to their leaders through traditional, consultative mechanisms such as the open “majlis” (forum). The FNC, a nonlegislative, consultative body, consists of 40 representatives allocated proportionally to each emirate based on population.

In October 2004 the UAE began the month of Ramadan amid rumors that Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the President of the UAE since it became a federation in 1971, had either passed away, or had slipped into a coma. Sheikh Zayed was reported to be on life support. Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Khalifa became Ruler of Abu Dhabi when his father died on 04 November 2004.

By 2004 the slow but steady regional trend toward democratization has triggered some, albeit limited, discussion in Emirati circles about the prospects of taking similar steps here in the UAE. The local media has been reporting regularly on the progress of Saudi Arabia's moves toward its first municipal election, and people often compare and contrast Saudi Arabia's democratization steps to those made in Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman. Most Emiratis would not try to pressure the UAEG into political changes for fear of social and political blowback. The wealthy are too self-centered to risk political and social disfavor. On the other hand, poorer and less educated Emiratis are too intimidated to speak out,

The UAE was now the only state in the Gulf without elected bodies. However, discussion was starting to percolate in the UAE media and in private settings about the potential for political reforms in the country, including the possibility of holding elections at the local and federal levels, and allowing women to serve in a strengthened federal representative body.

The UAE was celebrating its 34th National Day when President Sheikh Khalifa announced the country’s first elections. UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan announced 01 December 2005 that indirect elections will be held for half of the Federal National Council (FNC), with the other half being appointed. The aim was to increase political participation among Emiratis through a “political empowerment programme”. During the first election, an Emirati listed on the Electoral College could vote for up to four candidates. And the process was half electronic, half manual. The first Electoral College was small; a total of 6,595, but the excitement was big because it was the first federal election. The winners were splashed across the front pages the next morning. Among the faces was Khaled Abu Shehab, who won a seat for Ajman with 68 votes.

On 24 September 2011, a 130,000-member appointed electorate elected 20 members of the FNC, a 40-member consultative body with no legislative authority. Seats in the FNC were apportioned to each emirate based on population size. Each emirate appoints a portion of the other 20 FNC members. Authorities expanded the electorate from the 2006 election, in which they appointed only 6,689 Emiratis. The electorate appointment process lacked transparency. Approximately 28 percent of eligible voters participated, electing one woman among the 20 FNC members. There were more than 460 candidates, some of whom publicly lobbied for greater legislative authority without retaliation from the government.

After the onset of the Arab Spring, authorities severely restricted public criticism of the government and ministers. The government made several arrests reportedly related to a petition for democratic reforms. The government owned several of the country’s newspapers and heavily influenced the privately owned media, particularly through government subsidies. Except for media located in Dubai and Abu Dhabi’s special free trade zones and foreign language media targeted to foreign residents, most television and radio stations were government-owned and conformed to unpublished government reporting guidelines. Satellite-receiving dishes were widespread and provided access to international broadcasts without local censorship.

The law authorizes censorship of domestic and foreign publications to remove criticism of the government, ruling families, or friendly governments; statements that “threaten social stability”; and material considered pornographic, excessively violent, derogatory to Islam, or supportive of certain Israeli government positions. In April authorities removed an unflattering feature on Dubai from newsstand copies of the international magazine Vanity Fair. According to the NMC and Dubai police officials, journalists were not given specific publishing instructions; however, government officials reportedly warned journalists when they published material deemed politically or culturally sensitive.

The government used libel laws to suppress criticism of its leaders and institutions. No journalists have received prison sentences for defamation since 2007. Other punishments for violations of libel laws remained in force, including suspension of publishing for a specified period of time and penalties of five million dirhams (approximately $1.4 million) for disparaging senior officials or royal family members and 500,000 dirhams (approximately $140,000) for misleading the public and harming the country’s reputation, foreign relations, or economy.

Political organizations, political parties, and trade unions are illegal. All associations and NGOs were required to register with the Ministry of Social Affairs, and many received government subsidies. Registration rules require that all voting organizational members, as well as boards of directors, must be Emirati citizens; this excludes about 90 percent of the population from fully participating in such organizations.

The Federal National Council advises the Government on matters of national importance. It can pass, amend and reject federal laws and discuss international treaties, while it is also a forum for members to raise concerns of ordinary Emiratis. It was established in 1971 but voting was only introduced in 2006. Members hold office for four years.

During the 05 October 2019 elections, calls for greater equality, better health care in remote parts of the country and an acceleration of the Emiratisation drive were just a few of the issues exercising minds from Ras Al Khaimah and Sharjah to Abu Dhabi and Dubai. While numbers of people who voted were up greatly on the 2015 election - from 79,157 to 117,592 - the percentage turnout was slightly down, from 35.29 per cent to 34.81 per cent. This was due to the substantial increase in the number of registered voters for the 2019 elections, up from 224,279 to 337,738 this year.

The list of 20 members who secured seats elections were finalised within a week. The National Election Committee (NEC), approved the final list of the elected members of the Federal National Council (FNC) during its fifth meeting on October 13, 2019. It also reviewed reports on the progress of the electoral process, explored opportunities for improvement, and endorsed the decision of its Appeals Committee concerning the elections. The committee also praised the unwavering support and guidance offered by the UAE leadership in ensuring that international best practices were followed across all stages of the election cycle. "Today, we celebrate another milestone in the UAE's political development journey. Our parliamentary system is maturing with every election towards empowering all citizens to choose their preferred candidates," said Abdulrahman bin Mohamed Al Owais, Minister of Health and Prevention, Minister of State for FNC Affairs, and Chairman of NEC.

UAE President Sheikh Khalifa issued a decree to form the Federal National Council on 10 November 2019 after all 40 members were confirmed. Sheikh Khalifa called for the council to convene on Thursday for the start of its new term. The consultative body is made up of 20 representatives voted for by the public and another 20 appointed by UAE rulers. Now the remaining 20 names appointed by the UAE leadership have also been announced. Sheikh Khalifa ordered that the council be evenly represented by men and women in an effort to ensure gender equality in the country's democratic process.

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Page last modified: 17-11-2019 19:18:17 ZULU