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Last Updated: Friday, 29 July 2005, 15:12 GMT 16:12 UK
Few want vote in booming Dubai
By Heather Sharp
BBC News, Dubai

As part of a series about young people in the Middle East, the BBC News website reports on views about democratic reform in a city where change does not seem high on the agenda.

Amna Hammadi, 22, UAE national and media graduate
Sure, I want our country to be more of a democracy and I guarantee it will happen
Amna Hammadi, 22
"We live in the best democracy ever," says Samir Marzouqi, 19, who lives in a country where citizens never vote.

As a national of the United Arab Emirates, he lives in what is now the only country in the Gulf which has no elected bodies. Political parties are banned.

But he points out that the sheikhs who rule the UAE attend regular open meetings where citizens can air concerns.

And, as many of his peers stress, with free health care and education, a booming economy and political stability, few want to complain anyway.

'Co-operative'

While the US is ratcheting up pressure for reform in the region, it seems democracy is not a high priority for Dubai's young people, despite the fact that they are among the Middle East's best-educated and most-travelled.

UAE GOVERNMENT
Former UAE President Sheikh Zayed Bin-Sultan Al Nahyan
The UAE is a federation of seven states or emirates
Each emirate is ruled by an emir from a leading family
The seven emirs form the Supreme Council of Rulers
The Supreme Council of Rulers appoints the president, prime minister and cabinet
Sheikh Zayed Bin-Sultan Nahyan (above) was president from the birth of the UAE in 1971 until his death in 2004
His son, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, the ruler of Abu Dhabi, succeeded him as president

"Everybody is happy, everything is going smoothly, and I don't think we should jeopardise that to be a democratic country," says UAE national Sharifa Maawali, 27.

Ohood Saif Ichlah, 19, also a UAE national, grew up in the UK. While she says "there's a lot to be said for democracy," she sees Western politicians' constant need to consider whether decisions will win them votes as a disadvantage.

She thinks the UAE functions well without democracy because the citizens are happy with their rulers: "If they were unsatisfied it would show - it wouldn't be such a co-operative community."

Dubai is held up by many of its residents as a shining example of how an Arab culture can embrace 21st Century globalisation without losing its traditional values.

Moderate Islam

Alcohol is legal for all but UAE nationals, although some locals, even those wearing their distinctive national dress, risk a fine to join the expatriate revellers in the city's bars.

And everyone from Western tourists to visiting Saudis is free to party until the early hours in nightclubs playing everything from R&B to Arabic dance music.

In America you could actually stand out in a square and curse the president - and I don't think that's a good thing
Sharifa al-Maawali, 27
No laws dictate whether UAE women must wear the veil and full-length cloak known as the abaya - although most choose to do so. All religions are permitted, but trying to convert Muslims is banned. The government promotes moderate Islam.

Apart from in Dubai, in the UAE Sharia courts can punish adultery, prostitution, and drug or alcohol abuse with flogging - albeit carefully regulated to avoid serious injury.

A multitude of police officers keep order. Visitors comment on how safe and clean the city feels.

Freedom of speech

Hassan, 25, an Iraqi who lives in Dubai, is one of the few people I meet who supported the US-led war in Iraq: "Only the US could kick out a government like Saddam's," he explains.

Our governments are all corrupt and, though there is some change for the better, nothing is really improving
Rasha, Bahrain

But he sees Dubai's system, rather than US-style democracy, as a model for Arab nations.

"I still believe there should be some religious basis - not to the extent of Iran and Saudi Arabia, but maybe like in Dubai where you have the freedom to do what you want but there is a religious flavour to it."

However, the UAE does not have freedom of speech. The media is controlled and the self-censoring papers are very cautious about criticising the government.

Western films are shown, but with the more racy scenes censored. Internet access is via a government ISP which blocks websites deemed unsuitable. These range from pornography to radical Islamic and anti-government sites, and include those suggested by citizens.

Most locals are keen to stress that the media are becoming more adventurous, however. "Now the TV channels report news whether it's positive or negative," says media graduate and UAE national Amna Hammadi, 22.

But not everyone wants a complete free-for-all. "In America you could actually stand out in a square and curse the president - and I don't think that's a good thing," says Sharifa al-Maawali.

Reform calls

Views about democracy change when it comes to other countries in the region, however.

Although the general objections to US meddling mirror those elsewhere in the Arab world, several young people say countries such as Egypt need reform badly.

Media student Samir Marzouqi, 19
We live in the best democracy ever
Samir Marzouqi, 19
"They should be - not forced - but threatened at least!" says Maria Hanif Qassimi, 20, another UAE national.

But there are concerns about US expectations about the pace of change. "If they want to change a country, they should go step by step. God made the world in six days, but they want to change everything in one day!" says UAE student Salim Alakraf, 25.

Some in the UAE say that the rulers are preparing the people for democracy, pointing to heavy investment in educating the young, particularly in areas such as media and leadership.

Enthusiastic

And earlier this year a few intellectuals called for elections for members of the UAE's Federal National Council, a body of appointed members that advises the ruling sheikhs but has little power.

Amna Hammadi is one of the few young UAE nationals I interview who are enthusiastic about democracy. She believes it is inevitable.

"Sure, I want our country to be more of a democracy and I guarantee it will happen. It might take a few years, but it will happen, starting from Dubai."

But how close that democracy is to the Western model is another question, as 19-year-old student Bushra Mohammed Roken points out.

"We learn from each other. Maybe the American democracy isn't the final solution - maybe they can improve it, a little from here, a little from there."


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