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Last Updated: Friday, 15 December 2006, 12:11 GMT
UAE prepares for first elections
By Julia Wheeler
BBC News, United Arab Emirates

UAE election candidate
There are 65 women among the 450 candidates
People in the United Arab Emirates are going to the polls for the first time next week to choose half of the country's Federal National Council or FNC.

The voting is taking place in the different emirates over Saturday, Monday and Wednesday.

Only a tiny percentage of the population has been invited to vote at these elections. But the government has been keen to point out that this is a starting point on the route to broader political participation.

The voters, who number fewer than 7,000 men and women, have been selected by the rulers of the seven emirates which make up the UAE. This represents under 1% of Emirati citizens.

The criteria for selection have not been made clear, but they seem to be based on traditional forms of patronage.

Cautious steps

For some, the inclusion of women is one of the most important and exciting factors. It was never in question in a country where women are increasingly taking high profile roles in business, public service and education.

The government is making no secret of the fact that it is being cautious as it opens up political participation.

Saturday 16th - Abu Dhabi, Fujairah
Monday 18th - Dubai, Ras Al Khaimah
Wednesday 20th - Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain

It does not want to encourage political parties, tribalism or sectarianism - the climate in which many Middle Eastern elections have been fought recently.

Some critics though, say the government has created discord and some anger by dividing the country into two groups - those who have the vote and those who do not.

The Minister of State for FNC Affairs, Dr Anwar Gargash, has said making a mistake while opening up the electoral process could be critical.

At the same time, he said, the UAE government does not want to be stagnant and feels the time is right for people to have wider representation.

The government says those who are voting represent a cross section of society - the old and young, men and women, the highly educated and those with a rudimentary education, professionals and people in government.

The candidates are also from this hand-picked group.

Among those who put themselves forward are educationalists, writers, academics, public servants, journalists and architects.

Foreign workers are needed to maintain the pace of development

They have been campaigning on the issues of healthcare, education, unemployment among young Emiratis, the rising cost of living, reform of the FNC and population imbalance.

The issue of demographics is particularly important to many Emiratis who are a minority in their own country. According to official figures, they make up less than 20% of the population - but this is widely believed to be an overestimation of the reality.

Threat to traditions

With foreign workers entering the country on a daily basis to help facilitate the country's phenomenal development, Emiratis are becoming an ever-smaller proportion of the population.

Many feel their culture and traditions are under threat.

This is a politically hot topic and one on which candidates views will be closely watched.

The elections are particularly important in that those elected on this occasion will have the task of helping shape the future of the country's political participation.

The FNC is expected to be enlarged and the country to move towards more open and inclusive elections.

The new council will study the UAE's constitution, including how much power the FNC should itself have in the future.

For the moment though, it is an advisory body which may discuss draft laws passed to it by the government, but which has no power to veto them.

The hope of the reformers is that by the next time the council is elected, there will be full political participation of all Emirati citizens.

There is no suggestion that expatriate guest workers, who make up 80% of the population, will be given a vote in the future.

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Country profile: United Arab Emirates
13 Nov 06 |  Country profiles
Timeline: United Arab Emirates
13 Nov 06 |  Country profiles

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