Cautious political reform in the UAE

Abu Dhabi has substantially increased the number of people eligible to vote in this year’s Federal National Council elections, but the UAE remains cautious in its approach to democratic reform. Published in MEED, 4 November 2011

Two sides of the UAE’s nascent experiment with democratic reform will be on show in late November. The new Federal National Council (FNC) is due to start work by 21 November, while a few days later, on 27 November, a judgment is expected in the trial of five activists accused of insulting the president and others.

Neither event is likely to be celebrated by those calling for greater political freedom in the country. Half of the members of the council are directly appointed, while the trial has received widespread criticism by international organisations. Nonetheless, both events highlight the adjustment that is taking place in the relationship between the country’s rulers and their subjects.

While there is no doubt as to where real power lies in the UAE, more citizens have been invited to participate on the fringes of the political process this year, even as others are calling for greater changes. As the country prepares to mark its 40th anniversary this December, a future test for the authorities will be how far they are willing to go to meet such demands.

Few voters

This year’s election for the FNC has highlighted both the issue of greater participation and demands for more reforms. The council was set up in 1972, a year after the state itself was formed. For the first 34 years of its history it was wholly appointed, but since 2006, half the members have been elected, albeit by a hand-picked group of voters. For the election that year, fewer than 7,000 people were entitled to vote, but the electorate was increased substantially for this year’s poll to 129,274 voters.

Popular enthusiasm did not keep pace with the growth in the franchise, however, and the turnout on 24 September was meagre – just 35,877 voters went to cast their ballot, a participation rate of less than 28 per cent. Given what they were being allowed to vote for though, it is perhaps no surprise that the turnout was so low.

“Increasing the electoral register in the UAE may be great, but it’s still only about 20 per cent [of the local population] and they’re voting for half the seats of a council that has no legislative power,” says Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a research fellow in the Department of Government at the London School of Economics. “So it’s no surprise there wasn’t any fanfare.

“The low turnout just underlined the fact that people saw it for what it was, which was an exercise in window dressing. The election tried to show the local population that the government was taking their interests into account when making decisions. It was also for external consumption, particularly for the US, to show that there are democratic roots emerging in the UAE as well. In comparison to the rest of the Gulf, among the countries which have any sort of elections, the UAE is the most restrictive.”

Like most locals, Ibtisam al-Kitbi, an assistant professor in the Political Science department at UAE University, was not given a vote in the election. But she says that more could have been done to raise awareness ahead of polling day. “The people who were responsible for raising awareness did not do their work well,” she says. “People do not know about the FNC and some people think it does not do anything. The public are more concerned if this is going to have an impact on their earnings or their living.”

Comfortable lifestyles

The lack of participation is also at least partly due to the comfortable standard of living that most Emiratis enjoy. While the economy has stuttered in recent years, oil revenues are high and the financial perks that are available for nationals remain generous.

“People are generally satisfied with the governance and their own position within the system, so I think the low turnout is a result of that broad satisfaction within the country,” says Christian Koch, director of the Gulf Research Centre. However, he acknowledges that apathy towards the FNC was also a factor for some. “The fact that there’s no real indication that the FNC will be reformed did keep some people away from the polls because they didn’t feel this was a substantial vote.”

There have been calls for reform to the FNC, both to extend the franchise to the entire population and to give the council more power of oversight over the government. An online petition in March drew several hundred signatures and while such issues are not driving people onto the streets in the way that was seen in Tunisia or Bahrain, there is clearly a debate now going on in some sections of Emirati society.

Allotting power

“Democracy is not only elections,” says Al-Kitbi. “What is of more concern for me is how powerful the FNC is going to be, in terms of the candidates, members and in terms of its tools. This is what they should work on. It should be powerful in monitoring the government. It doesn’t have the tools of investigation, the tool of a vote of confidence. It should be more powerful, so that it can [hold] ministers accountable.”

The authorities, however, do not always react well to calls for change. The five activists on trial in the Federal Supreme Court were arrested in March after signing the petition, which called for direct elections and for the FNC to be given legislative powers.

‘’The suspects are facing charges of instigation of breaking laws, perpetrating acts that pose [a] threat to state security, undermining the public order, opposing the government system and insulting the president, the vice president and the crown prince of Abu Dhabi,’’ said UAE Attorney General Salim Saeed Kubaish in a statement on 24 September.

The defendants include Ahmed Mansoor, a well-known blogger, Nasser bin Ghaith, an economist and lecturer at Sorbonne Abu Dhabi, as well as Fahad Salim Dalk, Ahmed Abdul-Khaleq and Hassan Ali al-Khamis. They face prison terms of up to five years if convicted. Organisations such as the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information and Amnesty International have described the trial as unfair and violating the basic rights of the defendants.

It remains unclear why these five have been charged when so many others also signed the petition. In any case, the authorities have also been restricting the space for debate in the country and tightening their grip on a number of institutions.

Among the more notable actions taken over the past year, the UAEHewar.net website, which had become a popular arena for debate among locals, was blocked in February 2010. In addition, the Gulf Research Centre has had to move out of the UAE after its application to renew its licence was refused by authorities last year. No clear reason was given to the organisation and it now operates from offices in Geneva, Cambridge and Jeddah.

In April this year, the Minister of Social Affairs Maryam Khalfan al-Roumi dissolved the board of directors of the Jurist Association and replaced them with government appointees. The government took similar action against the Teachers’ Association the following month.

“The government’s takeover of institutions like the lawyers association and the teachers association has more or less closed off those avenues,” says Coates Ulrichsen. “Any democratic outlet in the UAE has been quite firmly closed off.”

Despite the ongoing efforts to placate or suppress dissent, pressure for change is unlikely to disappear, not least because of the changing nature of Emirati society. A comfortable house and a good salary will not always be enough to keep people from wanting more input into the political process, say analysts, particularly in light of the events in other countries around the region.

“What a growing number of people are looking for is to play a role of being a productive citizen within the country and not necessarily to just be satisfied with the economic conditions,” says Koch. “You have a younger population, not only in the UAE but throughout many of the Gulf countries, who are increasingly educated and globalised, who are aware of what’s going on elsewhere and who also want to play a productive political role in the development of their own country.

Greater transparency

“So, the pressure will be there to reform institutions like the FNC to give it a more substantive role, to have a broader say in some of the decision-making processes, to move towards the development of political institutions, to have greater transparency and accountability in the government itself. This is something that applies to the Middle East as a whole.

“It’s not so much about elections per se, it’s more about good governance and how you reform government and establish institutions that can deliver what people are looking for.”

Facing up to this situation will be a difficult test for the UAE authorities. The expansion of the electorate for the FNC poll this year shows that they are willing to make some concessions, albeit small ones, which do not change the distribution of power. However, it is unlikely they will make any wholesale changes any time soon.

“The government is hoping that these very limited concessions will draw the sting from the reform movement without really doing anything to substantially alter the balance of power,” says Coates Ulrichsen.

“Concessions on a tactical basis is the way forward, for them at least. They’ll continue to try and hold the fort through this combination of subtle tactical concessions where necessary, massive transfers of wealth to placate any potential dissenters and, where it is needed, force or at least targeted repression.”