May 29, 2006
Democracy in the UAE
Just over a year ago, Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum, then the crown prince of Dubai and UAE’s defense minister, and now the UAE’s vice president, prime minister and defense minister of the UAE, and ruler of Dubai, said:
I say to my fellow Arabs in charge: If you do not change, you will be changed… If you do not initiate radical changes, responsibly discharge your duties and uphold the principles of truth, justice and responsibility, your people will resent you. More than this, the verdict of history on you will be severe.
Bold words indeed. And you would think that UAE, which prides itself on being far more socially and economically advanced than its neighbors, would have done something about political reform too. The truth of the matter is quite the opposite. While the other five GCC states – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia – have held elections and referenda to improve political participation, the UAE has lagged behind. Admittedly, there is no pressing need for these reforms – the rulers are popular, and citizens do not want for much. Nevertheless, the first signs of change came last year when the ruler of Sharjah promised to hold elections to his emirate’s municipal council. This was welcomed the next day by neighboring Ajman, which promised to consider the idea itself. The emirate of Ras al Khaimah promised to improve participation as well. Nothing came of any of the promises made, however.
On December 2, the UAE’s national day, the country’s president announced plans for the first national elections, with the press hailing him for having revolutionized the nation. (Note how the image that the UAE has always had some form of a democracy is conveyed through the quote “This is not new. People have been doing this through the Ruler's majlis that is open all the time for presenting opinions and ideas.")
The actual proposal was rather underwhelming. The elections were to be held to a pre-existing consultative (as opposed to legislative) body called the Federal National Council (FNC). This body had very little prominence for a long time now, and despite a prominent UAE businessman being appointed as a new minister to supervise its activities, little seems likely to come out of these elections. Why?
Well, aside from remaining a purely consultative body, only 20 of the 40 members will be actually be elected, with the remainder still to be appointed directly by the rulers of the seven emirates making up the UAE federation. The really disheartening thing is that there will be only a couple of thousand voters. And how will they be chosen? The selfsame rulers will appoint them. Will these voters be representative of the population, or at least the citizenry? No, even the local press admits that they will be “mostly dignitaries, Shaikhs and prominent figures in the society.” Sounds suspiciously as if the rulers want to call upon their friends to tell them to vote for predesignated candidates.
Given that the body is consultative and half-appointed, you’d think that they could have at least had a wider voter base. Other Gulf countries started off with small electorates and expanded participation from there (Oman, in particular, comes to mind) but one would have expected the UAE to have gone further given that it is always trying to go further than its neighbors, and even ultraconservative Saudi Arabia has had a head start on it by virtue of having held municipal elections. Political participation will undoubtedly increase at some point, but it looks like this will be a slow process.
How slow? Well, a month ago, the smallest of the seven emirates, Umm al Quwain, finished appointing its local council, which was to elect its 2 elected FNC members. This should have been a non-event, yet it merited a front page story in the local press headlined ‘A dream nearing fulfilment.’ Perhaps the editor was being sarcastic to the point of being subversive. The truth came out two weeks later in this story. Umm al Quwain was the only emirate to bother to appoint voters (there’s an oxymoron for you) at all; the others hadn’t bothered, and had missed a deadline and an extension, while ignoring reminders. Meaning that the rulers have been too scared to personally handpick non-representative voters for half the seats to a powerless body. Clearly, meaningful democracy in the UAE is some way off.
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Aside from the inter-Gulf competition angle, what reasons are there for the UAE to make even meaningless gestures in the direction of democracy? Maybe I'm naive but I don't suspect that the prospect of being damned in future history books is much of a motivator. The citizens have their bread and indoor skiing circuses, do they even care who rules so long as the honey keeps flowing? Seems to me that elections only really matter when resources are limited; you vote for the candidate who will divide up the pie in a way that most benefits your demographic. Pardon my ignorance but are there UAE nationals that are actually poor enough to feel slighted by the current distribution of wealth?
Posted by: djuha at May 28, 2006 04:27 AM
Aside from the inter-Gulf competition angle, what reasons are there for the UAE to make even meaningless gestures in the direction of democracy?
1) The inter-Gulf angle could be connected to a loss of legitimacy, i.e. citizens wondering why everyone else has institutions that allow them to communicate their views to the rulers, while they don't. These institutions have a reasonable amount of power in Kuwait, and to a lesser extent, Bahrain, and are growing in strength elsewhere. Reform helps ensure that the monarchs continue to be seen as champions of the people, while actually consolidating their grip on power in the short term.
2) These slow steps address quiet post-9/11 American pressure for change.
3) Democracy would probably help improve the administration of the country owing to better responsiveness to popular demands and increased transparency (although this would not reach Western levels now or in the medium term), again helping improve the image of the leadership.
The rulers could, in short, get away with not taking any steps immediately, but in the medium to long term, they would have had to do something. Additionally, the oil won't last forever even here, especially with the growing citizen population, and sooner or later, government resources will be far more scarce. At that point, a medium-strength democracy would greatly mitigate pressures on the ruling family, thereby acting as a safety valve and a body to which the family can make some concessions in terms of governance. However, such an institution cannot be set up overnight.
Pardon my ignorance but are there UAE nationals that are actually poor enough to feel slighted by the current distribution of wealth?
Plenty. But they are not poor or unhappy enough to march on the streets. There are occasional quiet protests by 50 people outside a ministry for handouts, but that is about it.
Posted by: TSAG at May 28, 2006 11:30 PM