The UAE Government
The Unites Arab Emirates (UAE) is a perfect example of the transformational power of politics in the management of a country. The country was a sleepy corner of the Gulf barely a century ago. Its current international profile is the result of efforts undertaken in the last forty years.
For a country that received independence in 1971, UAE is an example of how a country can come from backwardness to become a strategic business location (Mongay 14). The location of the country is strategic. It is possible to reach any corner of the globe from the UAE because of its central location at the relative geographical center of the continents. From the UAE, it is possible to access any of the continents in one plane (IATA).
Apart from the well-known economic feats of the UAE, the country has a unique political system. The country is under the leadership of seven hereditary Emirs who are each in charge of an Emirate. The Emirs sit in a council that appoints a cabinet and other government officials.
One of the Emirs serves as the president of the country. Each Emir retains complete political control over his Emirate, and is in charge of all major decisions regarding the management of the Emirate. The aim of this paper is to explore various aspects of the political system of the UAE.
What is the UAE?
The UAE is a loose federation of seven Emirates. The use of the word “loose” in this statement does not mean disjointed or dysfunctional. It simply means that each of the Emirates retains the power to govern itself. However, the Emirates are all signatories to a 1971 constitution developed to solve the crisis caused by the exit of the British, who served as the protectors of the Emirates.
The UAE was not under British rule as a colony. The British signed pacts with local Sheikhs who were rulers of the Emirates to offer them protection at sea, and to offer support in case of land attacks. The British took on this role to protect its interests in the sea trade through the Gulf. Britain had strong trade ties with India and other Asian countries.
These ties depended on the ability of the British to use ports in the Persian Gulf as bases for the British Navy and docking points for trading vessels. On the other hand, the Emirates also traded with India and other Persian Gulf states. In the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, the Emirates exported pearls to other countries through the Gulf. This explains why the Sheikhs that were ruling the Gulf signed treaties with Britain.
In the late sixties, the British realized that their treaties with the rulers of the Gulf were no longer tenable. This came in part from the fact that Britain had lost several colonies in the region. Bahrain and Qatar gained their independence in 1971 (Mongay 18). In the same year, the British withdrew from the gulf treaties.
Attempts to create a proper nation out of the seven Emirates failed because of the divergent needs of each region. Therefore, the rulers in charge of Abu Dhabi and Dubai chose to create a union between their two jurisdictions. They made a constitution in 1971 and later invited the other rulers to join the Union. Within one year, the seven regions became the United Arab Emirates.
How the UAE Government Works
The UAE is a federal state. This federation is the result of the 1971 constitution promulgated by the rulers of the region. Each of the seven Emirates retains authority to run the affairs within its region, under the direction of the Emir.
The seven Emirates are Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Umm al-Qaiwain, and Sharjah. Each Emir is the leader of one of the Emirates. The office of the Emir is hereditary. The fact that the position of the Emir follows bloodlines, and an Emir has total control over the Emirate makes the Emirs absolute monarchs (Walker, Walker and Schmitz 45).
The UAE government has three organs. It has an executive, a legislature, and a judiciary. The members of the executive arm of UAE’s government are the president, vice president and the prime minister. The vice president traditionally holds the office of the prime minister too. Other offices in the executive arm are the Supreme Council of Ministers and the Federal Supreme Council. The high number of functionaries in UAE’s executive is deceptive.
The Federal Supreme Council consists of the seven Emirs. The council elects the president, vice president and the prime minister from among the seven Emirs. In addition, the council appoints the council of ministers. The ministers run state functions across the seven Emirates. These functions include provision of education, health, security, and trade. The Federal Supreme Council is the supreme authority in the management of the affairs of the UAE. Ministers carry out their duties at the pleasure of the Federal Supreme Council.
The judiciary in the UAE is fragmented. Each Emirate runs a regional judicial system based on local laws. While a Federal court exists, not all Emirates are part of the national judiciary.
The third arm of government is the legislature. The official title of the forty-member legislature in the UAE is the Federal National Council. Unlike western democracies where citizens elect the legislature, the system in the UAE is such that membership in the legislature may arise from elections or from appointment by the Federal Supreme Council.
Initially, the Federal Supreme Council appointed all the members of the Federal National Council. However, the council currently appoints about half of the members. The rest become members of the Federal National Council through elections.
The Federal Supreme Council is implementing democratic legislative reforms in the UAE gradually. The council hopes to transit the country slowly to a fully elected and more powerful legislature. This position comes from the lessons gleaned from the Arab spring about the negative impacts of rapid change, or absence of change.
The council feels that there is not room for error, hence the cautious approach. The legislature in UAE plays an advisory role, the Federal Supreme Council develops the laws used in the country, which the Legislature debates and offers an advisory opinion.
The President of the UAE
The presidency of the UAE is an elective office. However, eligibility for election is dependent on membership to the Federal Supreme Council. Membership of the Federal Supreme Council is hereditary, which makes the presidency hereditary. According the UAE constitution, one of the Emirs serves as the country’s president.
A president can serve any number of five-year terms. The president serves as the head of state. In this role, he chairs the Federal Supreme Council, signs treaties and appointments state officers. Other duties performed by the president include the appointment of diplomats, and representing the country in international forums. The president also coordinates the activities of the Federal Supreme Council such as calling meetings and chairing meetings. In addition, the president issues state commendations on behalf of the country.
The most influential Emirate in the UAE is Dubai. As such, its Emir became the first president. When he died, his son took over the post as the new Emir of Dubai. The second most influential Emirate is Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi is the financial capital of the UAE. Therefore, Abu Dhabi’s Emir serves as the prime minister of the UAE.
The judiciary of the UAE is a completely independent constitutional organ. The judicial system in the UAE is not homogenous. Each of the Emirates maintains a separate judicial system based on local customs (Griffiths, O’Callaghan and Roach 73). The local laws are the product of each region’s unique identity and history.
The sources of law for the Emirates are the Quran based Sharia, and laws developed by local authorities within each Emirate to deal with civilian issues.
The use of Sharia law does not make the UAE an Islamic republic. The Federal Supreme Council is sensitive to the difficulties of absolute Sharia. They prefer a more open judicial system. This explains why many foreigners find the UAE accommodating. In the same vein, the UAE is the most liberal region in the Arab world because of the effort of the Emirs to maintain a degree of religious freedom.
Apart from the local laws, federal laws also exist to provide direction for the entire country. These laws come from the Federal Supreme Council and form part of the legal environment of the Emirates. The federal laws govern aspects such as international relations, federal crimes, and disputes involving more than one Emir. The federal judiciary also tries federal crimes such as corruption by federal officials. The judges of the federal courts are appointees of the President in consultation with the Federal Supreme Council.
UAE’s Sources of Income
The UAE was traditionally a trading region. Before the discovery of oil, the UAE exported pearls to India and the rest of Asia. The trade in pearls collapsed after India increased the taxes on imported pearls to protect its domestic pearl industry. At the same time, the Japanese started producing commercial pearls, flooding the international market with cultivated pearls. As a result, Pearl exports from the UAE declined.
The main source of income for the UAE is exports of natural resources. The World Bank estimated that in 2011, 85% of exports from the country were natural resources (UNWTO 4). The UAE holds huge oil and gas reserves. In fact, the current economy of the region came up because of oil and natural gas exports.
Oil will remain a prominent source of income for the UAE because of the increasing demand and dwindling supply. As the world nears its peak production of oil before the commencement of an irreversible decline in reserves, the price of oil will keep increasing until the balance tips in the favor of other energy sources.
Apart from the natural resources exported by the UAE, the country receives revenues from tourism, and trade. Dubai is known for its vehicle refurbishment business especially with the developing world. The location of the region makes it an ideal air and sea transport hub. The Emirates Airlines will become the world’s largest airline by the year 2015 if it sticks to its current growth trajectory (IATA). At the same time, its rival airline, Etihad Airlines is a well-known international brand.
These two airlines are symbols of the UAE’s dream of becoming a transport hub for the world. Dubai may replace Heathrow as the hub connecting the Western hemisphere to the rest of the world (IATA). This demonstrates the business acumen of UAE’s leadership. These efforts are part of a deliberate strategy to move the country from the traditional reliance on oil and natural gas to other sectors.
Abu Dhabi is also becoming an important financial destination in Asia and Middle East (Deloitte 6). This comes from the effect of a high volume of goods and services passing through the UAE in transit to other parts of the world. Major Banks have branches in the UAE to facilitate the activities of international investors in the UAE.
The UAE is also investing in other parts of the world. For instance, the Etihad Airlines is a shareholder in Virgin Australia and Air Berlin as part of its divestiture strategy (IATA). This is symbolic of the greater efforts by the UAE government and the UAE business community to spread risks to other parts of the world.
As the natural resources dwindle, the region will have other sources of income. Abu Dhabi suffered immensely from the economic downturn of 2009. While this is negative when viewed from the perspective of revenue generation, it is a positive indication of the fact that Abu Dhabi is an influential player in the global financial markets.
One of the highest growth sectors in the UAE is tourism. The country is investing in facilities that can attract tourists in order to increase the regions foreign exchange (UNWTO 4). The Burj Hotel for instance is one of the most expensive hotels in the world. The hotel is a very good source of tourist revenue.
It attracts the affluent members of the international community who want to experience its ambience. In addition, it attracts many more tourists who simply want to have a look at it. The creation of man-made islands and theme parks such as Dubailand city (modeled after Disneyland), demonstrates the country’s long-term commitment to tourism.
Relationship between the Citizens and the Government of the UAE
It is difficult to render an opinion on the relationship between the citizens of the UAE and their government. This is because the government does not tolerate dissenters. The UAE government is not totalitarian, but it is not open to public criticism either. In essence, the only way to understand the actual feelings of the people towards the UAE government is by looking at the actions of the government.
One of the important clues in this matter is the Arab spring. Many citizens in Arab countries that were under totalitarian regimes took advantage of the wave of dissent that swept across many Arab states to change their governments. The UAE was not part of those countries. By inference, this may mean that the citizens of the UAE were not angry with the state authorities like other Arab Countries. This can mean that the citizens have confidence in their government.
Secondly, the UAE government is allowing democratic elections for choosing some members of the Federal National Council. The actual people eligible for office are very few, and the people eligible to participate as voters are few as well. It is still important to note that this opportunity does not exist in some countries. This also shows that the government is aware of the desire for democratic expression by the people.
Politics in the UAE
The political space in the UAE by democratic standards remains limited. There is no clear way for an ordinary citizen to become a leader in the country. The Federal Supreme Council fills most of the important positions in the country by appointing close relatives and confidants. Within the Emirates, the leaders come from the immediate family and close associates of the Emir.
The UAE does not have an active civil society. The UAE Human Rights Association and the UAE jurists association are exceptions in the political climate of the region. However, the two organizations are not powerful enough to question the state on issues. This fact, coupled with stringent rules governing the freedom of association, shows that the UAE is still lagging behind in the path to democracy.
Another factor that may be contributing to the pacified political environment is that the UAE has more immigrants than locals because the country needs foreign workers to run its economy. Immigrant workers are not politically active. Therefore, their impact on UAE’s politics is minimal. However, these workers are a crucial source of information for UAE residents regarding democratic processes. In this sense, immigrant workers may be the catalyst that will precipitate an increasing demand for political space by UAE citizens.
The history of the people of the UAE predisposes them to accepting the current government the way it is. The traditional mode of leadership for Arab countries was by hereditary chiefdoms. This fact makes the citizens favorably disposed towards the existing type of leadership. This leadership reflects the traditions of the people within their cultural context.
Amidst all the political issues raised above, the people of the UAE seem generally content with the political system in the country. The country is one of the richest nations in the Arab world. The living standards are very high and in some metrics, the region compares favorably with the developed world. For instance, the UAE has the lowest mortality rates in the world on many counts such as infant mortality and maternal mortality (Deloitte 4).
The UAE is in a good position to look at the future with optimism in its governance. Western political thought favors democracy over any other type of leadership. In the UAE, democracy is foreign and it is beyond the experience of the average UAE citizen. For as long as the citizens of the Emirates are content with their government, the leaders can carry on ruling in the traditional fashion.
However, there is need to expand the participation of citizens in the election of leaders and in the affairs of government. In a world where democracy is becoming the dominant force, failure by the Emirs to recognize the desire for democracy by UAE citizens can lead to sudden upheavals as was the case in North Africa.
The UAE remains an interesting case in the study of economic transformation, and in the journey from oil dependence to sustainable economics. The country needs to include elements of political change to support its emerging role as the hub of the world. Otherwise, there is risk that it will lose its trajectory courtesy of internal unrest.
Deloitte. 2011 Survey of the UAE Healthcare Sector Opportunities and Challenges for Private Providers. Survey Report. London: Deloitte, 2011.Print.
Griffiths, Martin, Terry O’Callaghan and Steven C Roach. International Relations: The Key Concepts. London: Taylor and Francis, 2008. Print
IATA. “CEO Interview: Etihad – Staying Focused.” 28 October 2012. Web. Airlines International: IATA. 30 October 2012 <http://www.iata.org/pressroom/airlines-international/october-2012/Pages/ceo-interview-etihad.aspx>.
Mongay, Jorge. Business and Investments in Asia. Madrid: ESIC Editorial, 2011. Print
UNWTO. Tourism and Climate Change. Geneva: United Nations World Tourism Organization, 2011. Print.
Walker, Danielle Medina, Thomas D Walker and Joerg Thomas Schmitz. Doing Business Internationally: The Guide to Cross-Cultural Success. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Professional, 2003. Print