DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – This booming, oil-rich country, the least democratic of all the Persian Gulf countries, announced plans Thursday to hold a limited form of voting, a cautious step to widen political participation and catch up with political reforms across the region.
The United Arab Emirates is one of the most socially liberal Gulf states, women can drive and don”t need permission to travel abroad.
But it has lagged behind political reform in the region, remaining the only Gulf nation that doesn”t hold any form of political elections. Its absolute rulers have long controlled not just the government, but also the economic direction and financial growth of the country.
The new reforms are a small step, allowing a government-selected group of voters to choose half the members of the Federal National Council. The council is the closest body the country has to a parliament, but its role is purely to advise the leadership, with no lawmaking powers. The select group may include women, who are not precluded from political life by the constitution.
The other half of the council”s members will continue to be appointed.
"We have decided to start activating the role of the FNC through electing half of its members through councils for each emirate and appointing the other half," the UAE president, Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, said in a statement run on the official Emirates news agency.
"By doing this, we will embark on a march that culminates in more participation and interaction from all the nation”s citizens," he said.
He did not say when the partial elections will be held.
"This is a hugely significant step. Its sets the pace for a new era. While it”s long overdue, and it”s a small step, hopefully it will mean an end to the country”s political stagnation," said political analyst Abdul Khaleq Abdulla.
The entire Middle East has been under pressure from the United States to embark on democratic reforms, and Gulf nations have been taking gradual steps. But the Emirates, a country of a million citizens and some three million resident workers, has been the slowest of all.
At the moment, each of the seven emirates that make up the UAE is ruled by a ruler who devises policy and enjoys absolute authority. Each emirate”s ruling family also has huge control over business and development deals.
The country has embarked on a major development campaign, attracting billions of dollars in investment, setting up free zones and continuously modernizing its infrastructure. It is booming, in part because of oil money, and also has become a top tourism spot.
The Abu Dhabi-based Federal National Council currently has 40 members representing the country”s seven emirates. Each emirate has a set number of members, based on its size.
The leader of each emirate will pick half his territory”s representatives, then appoint a larger number of people to vote among themselves on the other half. It is up to each emirate”s leader whether to include women among the pool of candidates and voters.
Kuwait has long had parliamentary elections. Bahrain”s Sheik Hamad has taken bold steps toward democratic reform since coming to the throne in 1999, including reinstating parliamentary elections. Qatar and Oman recently held their first elections, and Qatar has announced reforms that will bring about an elected parliament.
Beyond elections, Sheik Khalifa said the Emirates stands at the "threshhold of a new era." He said sweeping government reforms were needed to upgrade the rule of law in the country and transparency in government decision-making.
"In order to achieve these objectives, the years ahead require the rebuilding, restructuring, re-arrangement and rehabilitation of all existing government bodies and structures," Sheik Khalifa said in statement marking the 34th anniversary of the country”s national day.