Recent high-level U.S. diplomatic activity seems aimed at addressing a sense of grievance Gulf capitals harbor.
On November 14, the United Arab Emirates convened the 17th legislative session of the Federal National Council, a 40-member advisory body, half elected and half appointed directly by the rulers of each emirate. In June, UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan issued a presidential resolution allocating half of the FNC’s total seats to women. This marks a significant milestone in the UAE’s women empowerment process and longstanding efforts by the state to increase women’s participation. Previously, only three female candidates had won seats through elections, including Amal al-Qubaisi, the first Arab woman to head a national council in the region, although more women had been appointed to ensure their representation.
This year there were other important changes in the electoral process. There was a significant expansion in the electorate, as the electoral college increased by 50%. More than 117,000 Emiratis cast their votes to elect 20 of the FNC members, out of an electorate of some 337,728 citizens, pre-chosen by their rulers as eligible to vote and run. This marked a slight decline in turnout, however, which stood at 34%.
In a bid to encourage greater participation, the state has emphasized the importance of youth in the FNC by launching political awareness programs through the National Election Council. Voters under 40 years old make up nearly 60% of eligible voters, reflecting the pivotal role of youth in elections. UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said that youth participation would “strengthen the sense of patriotism, national duty, and dedication to public interest.”
Among those elected to office was Sara Falaknaz, a 33-year-old woman from Dubai, who is a testament to the growing emphasis of both youth and women on the council. AGSIW spoke with Sara about her visions and aspirations as one of the youngest elected members of the FNC.
AGSIW: Tell us about yourself and why you chose to run for the FNC.
Sara: I graduated from the American University of Sharjah with a degree in management and finance. I began working at Dubai Holding in 2008, as the executive director of operations. In 2015, I was hired by DP World as the global chief innovation officer. Since 2018, I have been dedicating more time to my family business, Falaknaz General Enterprises.
I chose to run in the elections at this young age due to our government’s bet on youth. Our leadership gave young people the opportunity to take part in the decision-making process. Today, we see young people holding high government positions as heads of ministries and deputies, along with leadership positions in the private sector. Since the council is part of this integrated system, why don’t we participate politically? I have had many experiences in various sectors; I realized that this is the right time to be part of the council, especially after half of the FNC seats were allocated to women.
AGSIW: As a member of the FNC, how will you serve your constituents in general, and youth in particular?
Sara: At the beginning, we must make clear that the roles of the FNC are advisory and supervisory. Therefore, my service in the council is complementary to the role of the government and we have no authority over them. Our government provides us with all our needs and turns our dreams into reality. After it draws up plans for the youth, it equips us with knowledge to guide us toward the path of success through ambition and perseverance. This may sound idealistic, but it’s reality! For example, as part of my campaign agenda, I proposed an initiative to train recent graduates and job seekers, while looking for a job, in the private sector for six to 12 months with a monthly reward or compensation, along with a proposal to hire retirees as consultants. Fortunately, the minister of Human Resources and Emaratisation [Emiratization of jobs] adopted a similar approach, while I also found out that [UAE Vice President] Mohammad bin Rashid has hired retirees as advisors and board directors in the public sector recently. Thus, I believe our government is being proactive in meeting the demands of its people.
As for the service of youth, I will serve them by listening to their concerns through virtual social councils and other means of communication to deliver their voices, along with my focus on the retirees, of course. However, I am currently in a period of research and development to identify the issues of the people and their concerns before starting my service in the council. After that, I will introduce the proposals to the competent committees of the FNC, then to the council, hoping to get it to the Cabinet to take it into consideration.
AGSIW: What concerns did you hear from young voters?
Sara: I did not only focus on youth in my campaign, but on retirees and all Emiratis in general. The youth population makes up to 50% of the total population, while the number of retirees is on the rise. Having been employed for almost 12 years in various places and dealing with different people from co-workers to clients, I felt that I had touched people’s concerns through my work. Hence, my campaign platform focused on innovation, tawteen [Emiratization of jobs], and entrepreneurship based on my experience. However, the young voters did not raise their concerns as much as their interest in my election platform as a whole and what I will offer them, since I was a candidate only. I believe their vote was driven by their faith in my election program. Now that I have won the elections, I will listen to their concerns and raise their issues in the council – including tawteen.
AGSIW: What does the FNC mean to Emirati youth?
Sara: Emirati youth participate in various state institutions from agriculture, economics, and finance to astronomy and even state ministries; in fact, Shamma Al Mazrouei, the youngest female minister in the world, was appointed at the age of 22. In addition, the state has invited and encouraged young people to participate in elections and facilitated the process of running. Youth would like to take part in the decision-making process through this prestigious council, which is considered the fourth source of power in the state.
AGSIW: You won your election spending less than $5,800 on the campaign. How did you reach out to people to vote for you?
Sara: Except for the discussion session I held, my election campaign cost me nothing. But I had spent about 21,000 UAE dirhams [around $5,717] to book the meeting room because I believe people have the right to meet their candidates and share their thoughts. It is my duty to listen to their questions and suggestions in full diligence and introduce my campaign platform. Finally, thanks to innovation, this session was recorded as part of my media campaign and shared on my social media accounts to make it available to all Emiratis.
AGSIW: Since 2006 up until 2018, there were only three elected women to the FNC. Why is it more difficult for women to win elections and what can be done to change that?
Sara: Actually, I do believe that our country is “all for women” and the government has been empowering women. Hence women should take that trust the government has placed in them and use it to their own benefit. It is true that a woman’s candidacy is still more challenging but at the same time, women have held at least six of the 20 non-elected seats since 2006, until we finally reached 50% of the FNC seats in 2019 as a result of the quota. In addition, the number of women candidates jumped from 22% in 2015 to more than 35% in 2019. This is a result of a top down approach, which is a testament to the state’s political empowerment of women. However, I do not have a perfect solution to build people’s trust in female politicians, but I do think we have a cultural issue that could be changed at the social level.
AGSIW: What are your goals for the next FNC session?
Sara: Our goal as members of the FNC is to work closely with our people to leave a positive impact, gain their trust, be the voice of the youth and the Emiratis in general, and deliver Emiratis’ suggestions to the Cabinet.
is a former research associate at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, researching Gulf politics, society, and culture.
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