In the Middle East, chambers of commerce matter. In most countries, every registered company is required to join. Chambers manage relations between local firms and their foreign counterparts. They are the principal channel for feeding advice and complaints from business to government.

They are also the crucible in the Gulf for vital political reforms. As MEED reports this week (see Banking & Finance), the Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce & Industry unveiled on 17 October plans for direct elections for its 21-member board of directors that will enfranchise all its members, including foreigners. More than 40,000 men and women will be able to stand for one of the 15 places on the board that will be filled by secret ballot on 5 December.

Nominations are open for nine days until the end of office hours on 1 November. The rules stipulate that two of the 15 elected members, who will serve a four-year term, have to be foreigners. Members will be able to vote electronically.

The chamber, which was founded in 1969, is one of Abu Dhabi’s oldest institutions. Its honorary president Sheikh Sultan bin Khalifa is son of Abu Dhabi ruler Sheikh Khalifa. Its present board includes representatives of some of the emirate’s most distinguished families. Competition for seats is expected to be intense.

Those involved make no secret that the chamber elections may prepare the ground for direct elections in due course for a representative Abu Dhabi legislative body. If the chamber elections are a success, Abu Dhabi – and, by extension, the UAE as a whole – will have taken a giant step forward.

All this is further evidence of unprecedented developments in Abu Dhabi. On 2 November, the UAE will mark the first anniversary of the passing of Sheikh Zayed, ruler of Abu Dhabi from 1966 and the federation’s first president. As MEED forecast, Abu Dhabi has in the past 12 months accelerated development and underlined its position as the largest and richest of the seven emirates that make up the UAE. With the economy and confidence soaring, there is a feeling that anything is now possible.

Happy birthday Emirates

The Dubai-based international airline celebrates its 20th birthday on 25 October. Its transformation from derided newcomer to the competitor other airlines fear most is one of the most romantic stories in aviation history.

In January 1985, Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid telephoned Maurice Flanagan, then head of the Dubai National Tourism Authority (DNATA), and summoned him to his Zaabeel office. How much would it cost to set up an airline, he was asked: ‘$10 million,’ Flanagan replied. Nine months later, an Emirates airliner flew for the first time. Flanagan is now its chief executive officer (CEO).

Emirates has changed the face of Dubai. Before it was founded, flying to Gulf cities often involved red-eye flights with at least one stop. It now operates more than a dozen daily flights to the UK alone. In 1985, Emirates had four leased aircraft. Today, it has a fleet of more than 80 aircraft and it has orders worth $30,000 million for 92 more. They include 45 Airbus A380s that can be configured to carry up to 1,000 passengers.

Emirates has fed the amazing growth of Dubai International Airport, which is expected to report a rise of more than 10 per cent in passenger numbers to 25 million in 2005. The Department of Civil Aviation forecasts this will rise to close to 70 million in 2012.

Without Emirates, the tourism boom that is making Dubai and the UAE the Gulf winter holiday destination of choice for European holidaymakers would have been impossible. It is a model that is being emulated by Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways of Abu Dhabi. World aviation, which is losing market share year after year to Emirates, now no longer mocks.

The Dubai air show at the end of November will hear further big an