A symbol of change

09 December 2005
On 5 December, history will be made in the UAE. For the first time, one of the oldest institutions, Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce & Industry (ADCCI), will hold elections for 15 out of the 21 members of its board. Two of the elected members will be foreigners, and two will be women. 'The elections are a symbol for expected change and are an unprecedented initiative that will boost the economy,' says ADCCI director-general Mohammed Omar Abdullah.

The ADDCI's elections are the first tangible sign that political reform is very much in the air in the UAE, a year after President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan came to power. And they look set to be only the start. 'I can confirm that within months a major declaration will be made on this issue [political reform],' Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan said in the 2006 Emerging Abu Dhabi report, published on 13 November. 'Right now, the UAE is economically powerful. More importantly, security in the country is something we can be proud of and from security the rest will follow.'

The reform push is significant. Even though the UAE has been at the forefront of economic liberalisation in the region, it has lagged behind the other five GCC states on political reform.

The pressure for political reform is hardly intense. As the economic boom continues unabated, many appear content to enjoy the good times and are reluctant to shake things up in a system that has worked consistently well. 'When people are making money, they are less interested in politics,' says a senior European diplomat.

On the other hand, it is arguably as good a time as any to take the first steps. The local business community has increasingly warmed to the idea of political reform, too, and the fact that the process has been instigated by Abu Dhabi is critical.

'I thought that Abu Dhabi would be second behind Dubai [in terms of initiating political reform], but it has gone ahead,' says Abdul Raheem Tayyeb al-Awadhi, chief executive officer (CEO) of the Dubai-based Leader Group. 'It was comforting to hear Sheikh Mohammed's words. We [the business community] will finally have some say in new rules and regulations.'

Abu Dhabi's political manoeuvres will be felt far and wide. 'Whatever happens in the capital will spread across the emirates,' says Mohammed al-Qadi, managing director and CEO of RAK Properties. 'The world is changing, so why should we stay behind?'

The days of throwing money haphazardly across the federation are over and the message coming out of the capital is that the smaller emirates need to fend for themselves, albeit with outside assistance. The inter-emirate agenda is moving forward rapidly, especially on the infrastructure front. A German team of Dornier Consulting, GTZ and Deutsche Consult has completed the pre-feasibility for the proposed trans-emirates rail link. Work on the new Dubai-Fujairah freeway will begin in early 2006, while the Dubai-Ras al-Khaimah Emirates road link was completed in June. Gas from the Dolphin network is feeding Ras al-Khaimah and Fujairah and will reach Dubai and Abu Dhabi late next year, when the Emirates national electricity grid will also come on line.

Leading government agencies, especially in Abu Dhabi, are also upping their presence in the northern emirates. Mubadala Development Company, which aims to develop projects at home and abroad, took a stake in the summer in Tanqia, the developer behind Fujairah's first integrated wastewater project. That was followed in October with Abu Dhabi Oil Refining Company (Takreer) unveiling plans to build a world-scale refinery in the emirate.

'People forget that it is the UAE,' says Hussain al-Nowais, board member of the Higher Corporation for Specialised Economic Zones (HCSEZ). 'We are united and one country. Sometimes there is competition between the emirates, but it will help i

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