Monday, December 18, 2006

UAE's first election

The United Arab Emirates goes to the polls this week in a historic first ever election. Democracy is being drip fed to the emirates. The rulers of the seven emirates have handpicked about 7,000 male voters (1.5% of the total population) to elect half of the 40-seat Federal National Council (FNC). The largest emirate, Abu Dhabi, and Fujairah voted yesterday and the other five emirates including Dubai go to the polls on Wednesday.

The poll is computerised and results for Abu Dhabi and Fujairah were announced within an hour of the polls closing. In Abu Dhabi, a woman was among the four winners out of 99 candidates while Fujairah elected two men from a field of 35. The victorious woman was Dr Amal Abdullah Juma Karam Al Qubaisi, an architecture teacher at UAE University. She said "I owe my success to my deep belief in Allah the Almighty, to the support I received from members of the electoral colleges in Abu Dhabi and to the sincere and realistic promises I gave during my campaign.”

The UAE is the last gulf state to embrace some limited form of democracy. The oil rich nation was founded in 1971. Before then the emirates were known as Trucial Oman. That name goes back to a treaty the sheiks signed with Britain in 1853. Britain was anxious to protect the Indian trade route from pirates based in the gulf. The treaty exhorted the emirates to adhere to a "perpetual maritime truce.” The British Navy enforced the treaty and arbitrated disputes between the sheikdoms. The seven rulers of the sheikdoms formed the Trucial Council in 1952 with the aim of adopting common policies in administrative matters. Then in 1958, oil deposits were discovered located beneath the coastal waters of Abu Dhabi. Onshore petroleum was found two years later. Britain finally gave up its interests in the area in 1971 and the emirates looked to form a union with Bahrain and Qatar which were also under British protection. But their interests proved to be incompatible with those of the smaller sheikhdoms, and both seceded from the Federation in August 1971 to become independent. The remaining states - Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Fujairah, Sharjah, Dubai, and Umm al-Qaiwain - merged to form the United Arab Emirates. They were joined in 1972 by Ras Al Khaimah.

With its considerable oil wealth, the Emirates quickly became a power in the region. They joined the Gulf Cooperation Council in 1981 alongside Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The council was formed in response to the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war and its aim is to coordinate resistance to outside intervention in the Gulf. The council members share similar political systems with limited democracy and a common social and cultural outlook. It remains a loose political and economic alliance although it has plans to create a common market by 2007 and to adopt a single currency in 2010. It remains an important force; the council holds 45 % of the world's oil reserves and supplies 20 % of the world’s global crude production.

Thanks to its large oil and gas reserves, the UAE is now ranked the 4th wealthiest country in the world. The country has undergone enormous growth in the 35 years since independence. In 1971, the country’s population was a mere 180,000. In 2005 that had exploded to 4.5 million. The chief policy-making body is the Supreme Council made up of members of each of the seven emirates. The emir of Abu Dhabi is president and his Dubai counterpart is Vice President and Prime Minister. Below the Supreme Council is the Federal National Council (FNC). The FNC has 40 members drawn from the emirates on the basis of their population. That works out as eight each for Abu Dhabi and Dubai, six each for Sharjah and Ras al-Khaimah, and four each for Fujairah, Umm al-Qaiwain and Ajman. The FNC is the day-to-day advisory administration. It looks after the annual budget but has no legislative powers. It is this forum which has now been opened up for democracy.

Election officials say that the FNC’s role will be expanded from that of a consultative body with no legislative powers to an assembly with more oversight powers after the polls. They also envisage allowing universal suffrage within four years. But politics is not high on the agenda of Emirates nationals. With its vast oil revenues, the government compensates its citizens handsomely meaning that there is little dissent and no Islamist violence. Abu Dhabi proved this with only 70% of its handpicked elite bothering to turn up to the polls on Sunday.

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