Who needs democracy?

15 July 2005
The 2005 Freedom House Report does not make good reading for the UAE. On a scale of one to seven, with seven the least preferable, the federation scores sixes for civil liberties and political rights. It fares little better in the Reporters Without Borders annual press freedom index, where the UAE finds itself ranked 137th in the world - narrowly ahead of Iraq, but behind GCC neighbours Kuwait and Qatar. If the two reports are to be taken at face value, Washington should be applying pressure on the UAE's ruling families to liberalise - or face the consequences.

The absence of a clear political reform programme in the UAE is a surprising anomaly, given its track record in economic liberalism and social tolerance. Abu Dhabi has been at the vanguard of utility privatisation, while Dubai has championed the free zone concept and, more recently, freehold ownership for foreigners.

Socially, the federation has the most cosmopolitan of all populations in the Gulf. At the last count, more than 190 different nationalities were represented among the 5 million residents. Nearly all enjoy a better standard of living than they could ever hope for at home, along with religious freedom and a relaxed social environment.

Yet the fact remains that in terms of popular political participation the UAE lags behind. While every other GCC state has held some form of democratic election, admittedly in some cases to municipal bodies or consultative councils, the federation has not.

'The UAE cannot afford to be the last country in the region to hold elections,' says Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, professor of political science at the UAE University in Al-Ain. 'There is a growing internal pressure - we are sitting on a chair with three legs rather than four and it is uncomfortable. The government knows that it has to do something, even if the people don't want it.'

The fact that academics like Abdullah are willing to speak openly about the need for political reform is in itself significant. And there are other positive signs. Over the past six months, previously socially taboo subjects such as interracial marriage and prostitution have been discussed openly on UAE television and radio networks. While newspapers and magazines remain cautious about criticising the government, some commentators have started to discuss the need for greater political participation. They are still in the minority, however. In the middle of an economic boom, most are happy to enjoy the good times while they last and are reluctant to rock the boat.

'It's very hard to demonstrate from behind the wheel of a Mercedes,' says a senior European diplomat. 'I don't get the feeling that people want the responsibility for running their country. People who are taxed want to be involved in where their money goes, otherwise it is a culture of no taxation, no representation.'

The existing set-up certainly lacks the trappings of most modern political states. Power remains in the hands of the ruling families. The Supreme Council, made up of the rulers of each of the seven emirates, meets rarely - usually at times of emergencies, such as last November after the death of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. The Federal National Council (FNC) is appointed by those seven leaders and acts as an advisory body, reviewing laws and questioning federal government ministers. Again, it has convened infrequently over the past six months. Abu Dhabi's National Consultative Council (NCC), also appointed, has also become increasingly marginalised. Political parties do not exist, labour unions are still not allowed and the judiciary is not independent. However, many nationals seem perfectly satisfied with the set-up, arguing that the majlis form of government still works for an indigenous population of fewer than 1 million.

'The locals are happy with the system here,' says Mohamed al-Ghanem, director-gener

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