The federal system of the UAE combines traditional and modern elements of leadership and government and has been responsible for giving the country a distinct national identity and political stability. Every emirate has a voice in the civil administration of the country, in both the supreme council and the cabinet, though the status and power of the powerful emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai are apparent. Critical decisions, such as approving the federal budget and choosing the President and Prime Minister, are usually reached by consensus.
Individual emirates reserve considerable power and autonomy in running their own economies and social systems. The governments are largely in the hands of royal dynasties and their local allies from other rich and powerful merchants and business families. In both the federation and the individual emirates’ governments, there are no genuinely representative political institutions. Ordinary people are able to communicate their problems to local leaders by talking to them directly in the traditional consultative forum the leaders hold regularly, known as the majlis (council).
The head of state is the President, who serves a five-year term. The FSC elects or re-confirms a President already in office. The current President is Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who is also the ruler of Abu Dhabi. On 4 November 2004 he succeeded his father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan – the first UAE President, often referred to as ‘the father of the nation’ – who had died two days earlier. In 2009 Sheikh Khalifa’s five-year term as President was renewed. He is said to be a pro-Western modernizer.
The Vice-President also has a five-year term. He is selected by the President but needs to be approved by the FSC. The post is currently held by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who is also the ruler of Dubai. Sheikh Mohammed serves also as Prime Minister. The Prime Minister, who is appointed by the President, heads the Council of Ministers, or cabinet.
The relationship between the federal and local governments is laid down in the Constitution and allows some flexibility in the distribution of authority. Traditional government still plays an important part in the government of the UAE, with the institution of the majlis (council) maintaining a role in ensuring that the people have free access to their rulers. During the majlis the leader hears grievances, mediates disputes, and disperses largesse. In theory, anyone under the leader’s rule must be granted access to the majlis.
On the whole, leadership in each emirate falls to that emirate’s most politically prominent tribe, and the paramount leader, the emir, is selected by the notables of the ruling tribe from among their number. The choice is usually, but not always, a son of the previous emir. Each tribe, however, has its own leader, or sheikh, and a certain degree of political pluralism, as seen in the institution of the majlis, is necessary to maintain the ruling family’s position.
Federal National Council
A slight change in government was introduced in December 2006, in the form of limited, indirect elections for the Federal National Council (FNC), an advisory body that has existed since 1972. The FNC’s functions include discussing constitutional amendments and draft laws, which may be approved, amended, or rejected (although the FNC may not submit its own draft laws); reviewing the annual draft budget of the federation; and debating international treaties and conventions. The FNC comprises 40 members, eight each from Abu Dhabi and Dubai, six each from Sharja and Ras al-Khaima, and four each from Ajman, Umm al-Quwain, and Fujaira. Until 2006 all FNC members were nominated for two-year terms by the rulers of the respective emirates. Since then, half of its members have been elected through an electoral college of 6,689 members handpicked by the rulers of the seven emirates, who themselves nominate the other half. In 2008 the Federal Supreme Council promulgated a constitutional amendment which extended the term of FNC members from two to four years.
In the September 2011 indirect elections for the FNC, in the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, 129,274 Emirati citizens – two thirds of the adult population, almost 20 times the number in 2006 – now selected by the National Election Committee established in 2011, were allowed to participate in the selection of 20 of the 40 FNC candidates. Since then, there have been seven women on the council, six appointed by the rulers and one elected.
Since 1972, the FNC has completed 14 legislative sessions. According to the Constitution, federal draft laws have to pass through the FNC for review and recommendations. Over the years a majority of its recommendations and amendments have been adopted by the government, and original draft laws from the cabinet have been amended by the FNC to suit the needs of the citizens they are supposed to represent.
The judiciary, whose independence is guaranteed by the Constitution, includes the Supreme Court – the highest institution, whose judges are appointed by the President – and the Courts of First Instance.
In the UAE’s dual system, Sharia courts handle criminal and personal-status matters, and secular courts handle matters of civil law. Non-Muslims are tried for criminal offences in Sharia courts, but non-Muslims most often receive civil penalties at the discretion of the judge, rather than Sharia penalties.
The UAE’s government is criticized for its refusal to abolish the death penalty, allow migrant workers substantive rights (especially the right of association), or normalize the situation of stateless people to enable them to attain full equality and receive such benefits as unconditional access to employment, health care, and other state benefits. Thirteen death sentences were handed down by courts in Sharja and Dubai in 2009, but none has been carried out.
Political parties are prohibited in the UAE, and rights of assembly and association are limited. Independent NGOs are prohibited, and all such organizations must register with the government and are subject to closure by the government. Trade unions are illegal. In 2002, the Dubai police created a human-rights department to monitor prison conditions, rehabilitate prisoners, and conduct programmes for crime victims, but independent human-rights groups are not permitted to operate in the UAE.
Bureaucracy is aggravated by the presence of monopolies and the tendency to centralize some major services, which excludes competitors from the private sector and reduces the effectiveness and quality of these services. A classic example of this is the semi-governmental telecommunications corporation Etisalat, which, until 2007, was the only provider of phone, Internet, and cable TV services in the country and was widely perceived as inefficient. The creation of a second semi-governmental company, du, to break Etisalat’s monopoly, has improved the situation by introducing more competition and choice for residents, but the improvement has not been drastic. Because government jobs are mostly open to UAE citizens preferentially, Emirati nationals tend to prefer working there. Other reasons for this preference include high salaries, excellent benefits (including pensions), flexible and short working hours, and a relaxed work environment. As a result, all state sectors (such as the police and armed forces), governmental ministries (such as Immigration and Naturalization), and semi-public institutions, such as the telecommunications giant Etisalat – tend to be overstaffed with UAE citizens.
In addition to poor services, nepotism, and wasta, some of the bureaucratic problems are caused by the loose centralization of administration and the lack of uniform procedures that are accepted in all the seven emirates. Changing jobs and residency from one emirate to another (such as from Dubai to Abu Dhabi) would normally require a lengthy and complicated process of changing work permits, sponsors, and residency status.
Though government services are generally costly, and everything is paid for in cash, there is relatively little corruption in the sense of bribery or profiteering. There are, however, occasional high-profile cases of corruption, in which senior governmental officials and civil servants have been identified as abusing their positions and have been brought to justice.
The UAE law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, and the government generally implements the law effectively. Much government corruption reportedly occurs at the administrative level. The country has laws that prevent financial disclosures for public officials, making it difficult to gauge the extent and depth of possible official corruption.
Given the lack of independence of the country’s courts, it is almost inconceivable that people in power or connected to the ruling families would ever be questioned, face legal proceedings, or be punished for corruption. It is widely believed that nepotism and corrupt financial and legal practices persist, even when the evidence for them is made public. For example, in 2008 the Department of Accountability returned to the Ministry of Finance approximately AED (dirhams) 300 million (approximately USD 82 million) that employees had embezzled. At year’s end, there was no information regarding what had happened to the employees. The law provides for public access to government information, but the government follows this provision selectively, and requests for access usually go unanswered.
One of the most important political reforms was the introduction, in 2006, of indirect elections of half the members of the Federal National Council. There were also efforts intended to enhance the effectiveness and transparency of public institutions. The UAE already had a state auditing body that controls federal funds and checks official financial records. Abu Dhabi has the largest annual budget in the UAE, and its expenditures are nearly three times the federal spending, because of its high oil production. As part of the fiscal reforms, it has created the Abu Dhabi Accountability Authority (ADAA), which closely monitors the revenues and expenditure of all government institutions and ensures that state funds are managed properly. The body is authorised to check the revenues and expenditures of all local government departments, including the National Consultative Council, city government, public establishments, and all institutions in which the Abu Dhabi government has at least a 25 percent ownership. The ADAA also controls the implementation of all loan agreements and monitors the investments and financial records at those public establishments, and supervising their inventories and warehouses.
Other reforms include the amendment of Article 62 of the Constitution, forbidding the Prime Minister, his deputies, and any federal minister from entering into business transactions with the federal or local governments or to hold any other jobs.
Political Reform and the Arab Spring
In response to the changes in the regional political environment, the FNC increased the strength and base of the electoral college from 7,000 voters in 2006 to 130,000 in 2011, representing a larger proportion of UAE nationals over the age of 21. As described by the Minister of State for FNC Affairs, Anwar Gargash, the step is designed to encourage ‘wider participation that will support and strengthen the federal experience as envisioned by His Highness the President’. Gargash also stressed the importance of the increase in the number of women and young people in the electoral college.