The spacious hallways at Dubai’s World Trade Centre were busy for a Saturday, filled with Emiratis clad in their traditional kanduras and abayas going to the ballet box. UAE nationals, almost 130,000 in total, had been given the right to vote on half of the 40-strong Federal National Council (FNC), an advisory body to the federal government.
At the entrance, a sign directing voters to the booth provided a popular backdrop for photographs. Two sisters, who had just cast their vote, posed there for some quick snaps taken with their phones. They were in high spirits, and happy to talk about their novel experience. Why did they vote?
“To improve our lives, because [the FNC] will represent us in this council,” said one of them, who works at a government organization. “They will talk about what Emiratis need, and be a connection between us the regular people and the leaders. Our government gives us everything , but still maybe the small details are not shown to them clearly.”
The candidats were reading from the same page. “I will be using my education, my skills, my knowledge to be a link between the people and the FNC. You could call this a national wedding, because the FNC is the link between the government and the people,” said Marwan Bin Ghalaita, the chief executive of Dubai’s Real Estate Regulatory Authority (Rera), who ended up winning one of the seats.
Further down the hallway, the human density increased, with throngs of men cluttering together, talking quietly amongst themselves, greeting friends and family members. Unlike polling stations in the West, where voters stop only to exercise their rights as citizens before retreating back into their private lives, the convention centre resembled a tribal gathering where the events of the day are discussed at length.
Even the absolute ruler dropped by to see if everything was going well. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, hereditary ruler of Dubai repeatedly visited the hall that housed the voting booths, accompanied by his usual generous entourage.
“The most important thing that we are looking for today is to expand the FNC authority,” he told the attendant press.
His subjects were pleased to have their trusted figurehead around as they ventured down the unknown road towards greater representation.
“The people are happy the Sheikh is beside them, and he is always supportive and pushes something that needs to be pushed,” said a middle aged man who was milling around with hall’s entrance.
The Sheikh is held in high esteem by his countrymen, which credit the Maktoums with the rapid rise of Dubai from little more than a fishing village to a city of global stature.
“We are happy. If you see a picture of Dubai from 1970 or 1980, and compare it to now, you will see the difference,” said the man.
Discontent in the rich emirate is rare, at least among UAE nationals, whose material needs are well-looked after. This has allowed to government to keep democratic change to a minimum even as the Arab Spring challenged, and in many cases disposed of autocratic rule throughout the Middle East.
While the franchise was expanded significantly from around 6,000 Emiratis when elections first took place five years ago, it still only includes around a quarter of adult nationals. It fails to give any representation to non-nationals, who make up the bulk of the population, and who in many cases have lived in the country for decades.
In Gulf Arab societies, the rule of a sheikh is unlikely to be contested if material wellbeing is provided for as part of the tribal bargain. Only if a ruler neglects his duties his position comes under threat from his subjects. In spite of being hit hard by the global recession that burst Dubai’s housing bubble, Abu Dhabi oil money has sustained living standards throughout the country, and in consequence the government retains popular support.
If anything, the FNC can be seen as a reaffirmation of the tribal system of rule, and appeals to traditional mindframe. As an advisory body, the council resembles the majlis, the sitting together of Sheikhs and his subjects, where grievances are voiced and handouts dished out. It is also similar to the advisory clique an Arab ruler surrounds himself with.
This sentiment is voiced by one candidate, Hashim[checking name now], who works at the Federal Electricity and Water Authority (Fewa) as an auditor.
“Government as a whole is just an organizing institution, and what it needs to do is organize wealth so that it can satisfy all the needs the people. The FNC is a consultative council, so I have to give them proper advice,” he says.
“I am against legislative powers for the FNC”, he adds, saying he prefers the streamlined decision making process of autocratic China to India’s cumbersome democratic governmental system.
The day after the election, it transpired that the turnout to the elections had been surprisingly low throughout the emirates. Only around 36,000 people, or 28 percent of eligible voters had bothered to turn up.
Quite what this means is hard to say. Where voters deterred by the lack of real democratic elements? Or did Sheikh Mohammed’s call to vote fall no dead ears because are they not interested in a more representative government?
Most Emiratis who did make their way down to the polling station believe that the second election is part of a process leading to bigger changes. But they are also seemed perfectly happy with the pedestrian pace of reform.