By Salman N. Al-Rashid
On September 24 the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will conduct elections for its Federal National Council (FNC), a “legislative” but largely advisory political body. A recent al-Arabiya analysis entitled, “UAE elections: what substance behind the gloss?” provides a sobering, realist perspective on what the election means for democratization in the UAE. Although Emirati leadership has conducted an aggressive PR campaign to build an exciting, patriotic narrative of political opening, very little will change. In fact, the election merely provides a forum in which the ruling regime’s accomplishments are trumpeted and a patriotic consensus around the UAE’s royal rulers is solidified.
Candidates’ platforms reflect both an enthusiasm for nation-building couched in patriotic rhetoric that praises Emirati leaders as well as a realist understanding of the FNC’s limited prerogatives that undergirds Al-Arabiya’s analysis.
An illuminating Khaleej Times report helps explain why. One candidate, Mohammed Al Amri, does make some concrete calls for change. He demands that rules that guarantee women’s equality be enshrined in the country’s constitution. Nonetheless, most of his platform emphasizes the need to continue the social and economic progress that Sheikh Khalifa al-Nahyan has achieved. Moreover, he claimed that thanks to the Sheikh’s unwavering vision, the upcoming elections prove that the UAE is the beacon of democratization in the Gulf.
Another candidate, Dr Esmail Al Zarouni, calls for the FNC to adopt “flexible parliamentary procedures” to ensure the efficient flow of information between the FNC and royal rulers. He suggests that this will enhance the FNC’s stated role of “examining, legitimizing, and monitoring key political decisions.” At the same time, his platform is simultaneously built on a realist understanding of the FNC’s prerogatives: he explicitly states that since the FNC has limited powers, candidates should not make lofty promises that they will be unable to achieve.
Government officials, too, are using the elections as a means of highlighting UAE royals’ accomplishments, specifically with regards to gender issues. According to another Khaleej Times report, the Minister of State and Foreign Affairs, Dr. Anwar Gargash, recently urged Emirati women to vote in the coming election. He heaps praise on the ruling regime by claiming, “The women in the country have achieved tremendous success in fields of social work, economic affairs, educational and other sectors.” He then implores women to vote in election by pronouncing, “The opportunity is in front of you to enter the gates of political consolidation.” He effectively frames the election as the symbolic culmination of Emirati leaders’ progressiveness with regards to gender issues.
If the FNC remains a parliamentary body with only advisory powers, elections will continue to resemble this patriotic, pro-progress frenzy that is in no way threatening to the regime. And it seems that UAE’s leaders are in no hurry to expand the FNC’s legislative prerogatives. The UAE’s ruling class has figured out an enduring strategy that will obviate any calls for parliamentary reform. It has initiated (and promised more) electoral reforms that will probably successfully co-opt any calls for any meaningful changes to the balance of power between regime and parliament.
Specifically, officials recently expanded the pool of eligible voters to 129,000, which accounts for about 30% of Emiratis above 18; in the last election, approximately 6,000 were eligible to vote. With an additional 70% of leeway, Emirati leaders will continue to pledge that further expansion of the electoral pool is forthcoming and, in so doing, temper calls for substantial change.