Candidates inevitably made the link between the ADCCI ballot and the announcement just four days beforehand that half the Federal National Council (FNC) would be elected. ‘Elections are new for us in Abu Dhabi,’ says local businessman and board member candidate Khaled al-Badi. ‘It’s a challenge. The election itself is a learning curve. It starts with the chamber and could go on to other government departments. It’s good for our future and for our young leadership. It’s a young, small step toward democracy.’

On 1 December, UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nayhan announced that half the seats on the 40-member FNC would be elected for the first time. The decision has been met with cautious optimism. ‘The UAE is well behind everybody in the region on this,’ says local political scientist Abulkhaleq Abdulla. ‘Everyone’s gone full speed along the democratic track but the UAE. So it’s better late than never. We’re finally out of the pre-reform phase that we’ve been stuck in for the past 10 years.’

Each ruler of the seven emirates will nominate an assembly to select half its quota of council members, in the first step of the phased programme to direct FNC elections. Details of the election process have yet to be determined, but new members of the partially elected FNC, which is expected to double in size, are expected to serve for two years.

‘It’s no longer politically comfortable. And it’s hugely embarrassing for our image and the internal security of the country [not to change],’ says Abdulla. ‘Elected or appointed, the council will have no impact unless changes go hand in hand with increased legislative powers.’

A timeframe has still to be set for the FNC elections and a lack of pressing popular demand in the form of petitions or demonstrations means the government can take its time. But the ADCCI election shows that interest in greater popular participation is there. More than 100 candidates, complete with campaign managers, canvassers and supporters, vied for 15 out of 21 seats on the chamber board, which is widely seen as a platform to influence the emirate’s executive.

Matter of opinion

‘A lot of people want to give their opinions to the shaikhs, and the board will carry their opinions,’ said seat winner Otaiba bin Saeed al-Otaiba before the vote. For Al-Otaiba, the hope is that the board will push for regulatory reforms and reduce bureaucratic obstacles to foreign investment. ‘We want Abu Dhabi to become like Dubai in certain ways – for instance, the way government agencies work. I hope to change things for the better.’

Expatriate candidates voiced similar hopes. ‘Through the board, we can pass on a lot of issues to government officials, such as organised labour, visas and airport clearance – fields where we have experience,’ says Mahmoud Awad, a Palestinian-Canadian who has lived in Abu Dhabi since 1974. ‘The board can influence government.’

Shaibani, an executive member of the Abu Dhabi Businesswomen’s Council, was one of three women candidates. ‘I am electing myself to be in a position to strengthen the law and make a contribution for women. Women have to be present where decisions are made and participate in economic development. I’m doing it to break the ice. Somebody has to be a role model. We have to start somewhere and I hope that next time, in four years, more women will stand.’

About 50,000 ADCCI company members were