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In the beginning of October, the United Arab Emirates held elections for its Federal National Council. The elections understandably received little international media attention. The Federal National Council is an advisory body without legislative powers or decisive influence. And the elections themselves involve only a fraction of the Emirati population: prechosen electors vote for 20 members, while the other half of the 40-member council is appointed by the rulers of the respective emirates.
Still, even this narrow opening can provide a window into dynamics within Emirati society and how the leadership is seeking to manage relations within it. While the representative capacity and supervisory power of the Federal National Council are limited, it plays an important role in national integration and in shaping important sociocultural trends within the UAE, among them greater inclusion of women in the public life of the country. Women have the right to vote in the UAE, as well as the right to run and be elected as representatives.
A Managed Opening
Emiratis are often portrayed as privileged based on the fact that the oil wealth of the small Gulf state makes it one of the wealthiest countries per capita in the world. State subsidies to citizens are extensive, and the governments, especially of the larger emirates, invest a lot in citizen outreach and service provision. Yet Emiratis make up less than 15 percent of the residents of this ever more global hub, and their role in governance is marginal. The Federal National Council is the one political institution that formalizes their input through elections, and could, if empowered, give them a voice in decision making.
The 2005 resolution to enhance the role of the Federal National Council through elections responded to international pressures for democratic advancement in the time of U.S. President George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda, as well as expectations set by the constitution of the UAE which calls for progress toward a representative democratic system. Still the constraints placed on the Federal National Council in both participation and contestation speak to the Emirati leadership’s careful management of representation.
The Federal National Council’s role is deliberative. Its members review draft laws, the federal budget, and international treaties and conventions, while following up on government work and citizen complaints. While it may suggest improvements to laws and policies, it does not legislate, and its tools to audit the government are weak.
The elective term of representatives was extended to four years from an initial two year service on the pretext of giving the Federal National Council more seasoned representation. Yet a high turnover of candidates and few incumbents seeking re-election has meant little professionalization of politicians. In the most recent vote only two incumbents won re-election.
The first elections for the Federal National Council in 2005 involved a very small electoral college selected by the leaders of each emirate. There has been a move in the direction of greater inclusion, expanding the electorate from only 6,595 citizens in the first elections in 2006, to 224,281 citizens in 2015. While the UAE does not release population estimates by nationality, local analysts have suggested that the current electoral college represents less than half of the voting age population.
The political context for elections is sharply circumscribed. Political parties are banned and collective political activities running against the tenor of state policies draw suspicion. Since 2011 security actions targeting the local Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated al-Islah organization have resulted in the trial and conviction of leaders and supporters on charges of opposing the basic principles of the UAE system of governance and plotting to seize power. Another citizen who mocked the most recent elections on social media found himself subject to prosecution.
Ultimately the Federal National Council elections represent a highly managed opening by an Emirati leadership determined to shape the state’s identity and political direction.
A “Unified House”
If the Federal National Council’s powers of popular representation remain latent, the election’s contribution to national identity and integration is more realized. The UAE has been one of the leading Gulf states promoting a new nationalism that works to bind the population to the state and its rulers. The leadership’s cultivation of national identity can be seen in the celebration of the military, the implementation of national conscription, and the promotion of national day celebrations. This same patriotic impulse is clear in the description of the Federal National Council campaign as a “national mission,” in the ubiquity of campaign and election posters bearing the UAE flag and colors, and in the healthy representation of former and current military and security personnel among those running for office.
Perhaps even more important is the role the Federal National Council plays in integrating the seven separate emirates that constitute the UAE. This is a potentially fraught process due to the independent mandate of the different emirs and the clear disparity of wealth, power, and prestige between the leading emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and their northern neighbors. The attention given to developing the Federal National Council since 2005 is a reflection of a broader campaign championed by Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan to empower the center and bring greater vitality to a weak federal structure.
Seats on the elected council are set by emirate: Abu Dhabi and Dubai each hold four seats, Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah three seats, and the smaller emirates of Ajman, Fujairah, and Umm al-Quwain are given two seats. This builds in a significant overrepresentation of the three smaller northern emirates, which contribute about 10 percent of electorate but are given 30 percent representation on the Federal National Council.
Elections garner more interest in these constituencies: The 2015 participation rate in three northern emirates reached over 50 percent – 70 percent in Umm al-Quwain – while turnout in Dubai languished at 22 percent. This enthusiasm gap likely reflects the populist nature of the political campaigns, which hold less appeal for more privileged citizens. Also, while political mobilization in the UAE is very low, the degree of politicization has been higher in the north as indicated by the pattern of arrests of Muslim Brotherhood affiliated al-Islah members.
Promoting Cultural Change
The Federal National Council elections are also an important vehicle for conveying the message that the UAE is a modern and moderate state, both to the population and to the international community. The inclusion of women in the elections is critical to this image and to the kind of society the leadership is trying to promote: cosmopolitan, distinct from the orientation of Islamist groups and from its more religiously conservative neighbor, Saudi Arabia. Yet while women made up nearly half of the electoral college, only 10 percent of the votes in the 2015 Federal National Council went to women candidates, and only one of the 78 female candidates who ran was elected. This was a disappointing outcome for many Emirati women, and consistent with the outcome in the last two Federal National Council elections.
The Emirati leadership usually makes up for the limited success of women candidates in elections, by appointing women to the council, six in the 2011. Still, the disappointing outcome may animate calls to consider gender quotas, a discussion that proceeded Qatar’s fifth municipal elections, which took place in May 2015 and resulted in the election of two women among the 29 councilors.
The 2015 Federal National Council elections were also noteworthy for the outright appeal for the favor of Emirati youth. Young people between the ages of 20-30 made up 36 percent of the electoral college and the National Election Council pursued their engagement via an extensive social media campaign. Candidates competed in their courtship of the youth constituency, highlighting their support for education and job creation. One successful candidate from Abu Dhabi presented himself as “the voice of the youth,” and expressed his pride in winning supporters not with money, but rather through appeals via new media such as Snapchat.
Despite the promotion of new media and new agendas, familial connections are still paramount. The 2011 elections were criticized for the dominance shown by tribal coalitions: Three out of four candidates from the same tribe won in Abu Dhabi, while another tribe took both seats in Ajman. As a consequence, the electoral system was reformed before the 2015 elections to inhibit block voting by tribes. While previously electors could wield the same number of votes as offices up for election – for example Abu Dhabi electors were given four votes to decide the four representatives of their emirate – in the recent campaign electors were given only one vote despite voting in multimember constituencies, weakening the potential for coalition building.
A Disinterested Electorate
The Federal National Council elections have demonstrated some success in targeting key constituencies for inclusion. But the ultimate progress of the Federal National Council may be threatened by the absence of the very thing it is ostensibly established to elicit: public participation.
Even after hand choosing the electorate, the authorities have had difficulty getting people to the polls. A public campaign to inform and mobilize public support behind the elections was planned after the disappointing 27 percent turnout in the 2011 election. Participation did improve, but remains low at only 35 percent of the electoral college.
Some Emirati activists and pundits have blamed the low enthusiasm for the elections on the strategy of gradual enfranchisement and empowerment of of the Federal National Council. Through his Twitter account, the political scientist Abdelkhaleq Abdullah called for the authorities to end the “guardianship” of the Emirati people and to fully enfranchise the public and grant the Federal National Council legislative powers. His arguments echo those found in a March 2011 petition signed by 133 Emirati academics, former government officials, journalists, and activists.
Others attribute voter indifference to the general satisfaction of Emirati citizens with the direction of government and their well-being. A member of the National Election Coalition stated that the low turnout was “the natural rate for societies like the UAE,” adding that “there is no pressure from the economic, social or political side, because they see that the situation they are in is perfect and whoever comes will maintain that level and even better.” Some voters pointed out the relative novelty of election culture for the UAE, and the need for time to educate the public about the role of the council as opposed to the traditional majalis held by the rulers.
Whether through antipathy or apathy the lack of popular commitment to the nascent elections opens up questions about its long-term efficacy in soliciting citizen voice in governance. Yet it is unlikely that the UAE government will alter its methodical course of managed opening, given the supportive role council elections play in strengthening identification with the nation, and the appearance of inclusiveness and participation it communicates, both at home and abroad.
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