To ensure effective governance of the United Arab Emirates after its establishment in 1971, the rulers of the seven emirates that comprise the Federation agreed to draw up a provisional Constitution specifying the powers allocated to the new federal institutions. As in many federal structures around the world, certain powers remained the prerogative of each of the individual emirates, which already had their own governing institutions prior to the establishment of the Federation.
Under Articles 120 and 121 of the UAE Constitution (which was made permanent in 1996), the main areas under the purview of the federal authorities are foreign affairs, security and defence, nationality and immigration issues, education, public health, currency, postal, telephone and other communications services, air traffic control and licensing of aircraft. In addition a number of other sectors specifically prescribed include labour relations, banking, delimitation of territorial waters and extradition of criminals. All other matters were left to the jurisdiction of the individual emirates and their local governments.
A closer look at the working of the federal and local governments, both separately and combined, underlines the UAE’s unique amalgamation of the traditional and modern political systems that have guaranteed national stability and laid the foundation for development.
At present, the federal system of government includes the Supreme Council, the Council of Ministers (Cabinet), a parliamentary body in the form of the Federal National Council (FNC) and the Federal Supreme Court, which is representative of an independent judiciary.
The Supreme Council, comprising the rulers of the seven emirates, elects a president and vice-president from amongst its members to serve for a renewable five-year term in office. Accordingly, H.H. Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Ruler of Abu Dhabi, was elected to the office of president following the death of his father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan in 2004.
The Supreme Council has both legislative and executive powers. It ratifies federal laws and decrees, plans general policy, approves the nomination of the prime minister and accepts his resignation. It also relieves him from his post upon the recommendation of the president.
The Council of Ministers, described in the Constitution as ‘the executive authority’ for the Federation, is headed by a prime minister, chosen by the president in consultation with the Supreme Council. The prime minister then proposes the Cabinet, which requires the president’s ratification. H. H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai, currently serves as vice-president and prime minister.
H.H. President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Ruler of Abu Dhabi
H.H. Vice President and Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai
H.H. Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah
H.H. Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi, Ruler of Ra’s al-Khaimah
H.H. Sheikh Hamad bin Mohammed Al Sharqi, Ruler of Fujairah
H.H. Sheikh Saud bin Rashid Al Mu’alla, Ruler of Umm al-Qaiwain
H.H. Sheikh Humaid bin Rashid Al Nuaimi, Ruler of Ajman
H.H. General Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces
H.H. Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai
H.H. Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Crown Prince and Deputy Ruler of Sharjah, Chairman of the Sharjah Executive Council
H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi, Crown Prince of Ra’s al Khaimah
H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad Al Sharqi, Crown Prince of Fujairah
H.H. Sheikh Rashid bin Saud bin Rashid Al Mu’alla, Crown Prince of Umm al-Qaiwain
H.H. Sheikh Ammar bin Humaid Al Nuaimi, Crown Prince of Ajman
H.H. Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Deputy Ruler of Dubai, Minister of Finance and Industry
H.H. Sheikh Maktoum bin Mohammed Al Maktoum, Deputy Ruler of Dubai
H.H. Sheikh Ahmed bin Sultan Al Qasimi, Deputy Ruler of Sharjah
H.H. Sheikh Abdulla bin Salem bin Sultan Al Qasimi, Deputy Ruler of Sharjah
H.H. Sheikh Hamad bin Saif Al Sharqi, Deputy Ruler of Fujairah
H.H. Sheikh Abdullah bin Rashid Al Mu'alla, Deputy Ruler of Umm al-Qaiwain
H.H. Sheikh Nasser bin Rashid Al Nuaimi, Deputy Ruler of Ajman
Prime Minister and Minister of Defence: Vice President H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior: H.H. Lt Gen. Sheikh Saif bin Zayed Al Nahyan
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Presidential Affairs : H.H. Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan
Minister of Finance: H.H. Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum
Minister of Foreign Affairs: H.H. Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan
Minister of Culture, Youth and Community Development: Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan
Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research: Sheikh Hamdan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan
Minister of Development and International Cooperation: Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid Al Qasimi
Minister of Cabinet Affairs: Mohammad Abdullah Al Gargawi
Minister of Economy: Sultan bin Saeed Al Mansouri
Minister of Social Affairs: Maryam Al Roumi
Minister of Education: Humaid Mohammed Obaid Al Qattami
Minister of Health: Abdul Rahman bin Mohammad Al Owais
Minister of Labour: Saqr Ghobash Saeed Ghobash
Minister of Energy: Suhail bin Mohamed Faraj Fares Al Mazrouei
Minister of Justice: Dr Hadef bin Juaan Al Dhahiri
Minister of Environment and Water: Dr Rashid Ahmed bin Fahad
Minister of Public Works: Abdullah bin Mohamed Belhaif Al Nuaimi
Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and Minister of State for FNC Affairs: Dr Mohammed Anwar Gargash
Minister of State for Financial Affairs: Obaid Humaid Al Tayer
Minister of State: Dr Maitha Salem Al Shamsi
Minister of State: Reem Ibrahim Al Hashimi
Minister of State: Dr Sultan bin Ahmed Sultan Al Jaber
Minister of State: Abdullah bin Mohammed Ghobash
Secretary General of the Federal Supreme Council: Hamad Abdul Rehman Al Medfa’
The FNC is the UAE's parliamentary body, comprising 40 members – eight from Abu Dhabi and Dubai; six from Sharjah and Ra's al-Khaimah; and four from Ajman, Umm al-Qaiwain and Fujairah.
The FNC’s functions include:
The Federal judiciary, which is accorded independence under the Constitution, includes the Federal Supreme Court and Courts of First Instance. The Federal Supreme Court comprises five judges appointed by the Supreme Council. The judges decide on the constitutionality of federal laws and arbitrate on inter-emirate disputes and disputes between the Federal Government and the emirates.
In line with the UAE’s rapid socio-economic progress, major steps have been taken, both at the federal and local levels, to reform the political system in the UAE in order to make it more responsive to the needs of the country's population and to ensure that it is better equipped to cope with the challenges of development.
This process has been directed, at a federal level, by President Sheikh Khalifa and devised and guided at an executive level by UAE Vice-President, Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed. Similar programmes have been launched at the local level in the individual emirates of the Federation.
Inaugural elections to the Federal National Council in 2006 were a landmark step in the reform process designed to enhance public participation in the UAE political system. Having followed a practice of nominating all 40 members between 1972 and 2006, 20 members of the FNC were elected by an Electoral College in 2006, with the remainder nominated by the rulers of the respective emirates.
The elections were based on the National Programme unveiled by the President a year earlier as part of a new effort to make the Council more dynamic, the ultimate objective being to increase participation and 'to entrench the rule of law and due process, accountability, transparency and equal opportunity. . .'
Envisaging a more significant role for the FNC, the President said:
. . . the years ahead require a bigger role for the FNC by empowering it to be an authority that would provide great support and guidance for the executive arm of the government. . . We shall work to make the Council more capable, more effective and more sensitive to the issues affecting the nation and the people. This would be done by ensuring a more participatory process and the entrenchment of Shura (consultations) policy.
The first step towards political change was the establishment of an Electoral College. This was created through a process by which each emirate nominated a council that had at least 100 times the number of FNC seats it is entitled to fill. These representatives then elected half the FNC members for their emirate, the ruler nominating the other half. This mechanism for indirect elections to public office brought new faces into the political process and also established an election-based culture for the first time in the history of the UAE.
A third round of elections, with an Electoral College that had increased to 224,279 voters (48 per cent of whom were women), was successfully held in October 2015. Three hundred and thirty candidates, including 74 women, participated in this election. The FNC's 16th legislative chapter convened in November 2015 with eight women appointed to the 40-member council (20 per cent of total). The Speaker is also a woman, the first time in the region that a woman has occupied this post.
The political changes are derived from the understanding that as the world around the UAE evolves, it is important for the country to develop and modernise its political process. The elections are part of a general effort to keep pace with fundamental realities that include a young, educated and enthusiastic population, the challenges of resources, the role of women and a recognition of the way in which issues have polarised society in other parliamentary experiments in the region. Demography is also an omnipresent factor in the strategy and development of the UAE’s political system. The elections are a gradualist step towards taking account of these changes, while maintaining stability and economic viability.
The Government’s decision to conduct elections is testimony to the high degree of mutual trust between the rulers and citizens. The limited scope of participation is conditioned by three factors – first, the country does not have an electoral tradition; two, the prevailing political tension and instability in the region meant that there is no scope for error; and finally, elections in the region have proved to be divisive affairs, based on sectarian and religious issues, which the UAE wishes to avoid.
The Supreme Council also approved constitutional amendments in 2008 to further empower the FNC and increase its scope of influence.
First, an amendment to Article 72 extended the term of office for FNC members from two to four years, which allows for a more appropriate timeframe for discussion of issues. Second, the amendment to Article 78 stipulated that the FNC session should begin in the third week of October each year, thus reducing the length of the parliamentary recess to coincide with the Cabinet's work and allowing further cooperation between the Government and the FNC. Third, Article 91 has been amended to allow the Government to notify the FNC of international agreements and conventions it proposes to sign, providing an opportunity for the FNC to debate them before ratification.
In a speech to the Federal National Council in November 2012, the President, H.H. Sheikh Khalifa, emphasised the Government's commitment to uphold the country's Constitution and the rights and freedoms of its citizens and residents as well as reminding FNC members of their responsibilities:
Your membership in this Council places great trust and responsibility on your shoulders. Governance here belongs to those who have bestowed their trust on you (the electors). Do be mindful to maintain your eligibility to receive this trust and be committed to the interests of the country and its citizens.
Members must work, he said, to protect the bonds that link all segments of UAE society 'in our quest to entrench the culture of consultation and participation in decision-making, as well as to emphasise the importance of individual opinions in formulating the opinion of the society'.
The first elections to the Federal National Council were accompanied by the launch of the UAE Government Stratey in 2007, another important milestone in the reform process. The strategy, according to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid:
sets the foundations for a new era of public administration. The changing times and the nature of the challenges prompt us to think in a different way and to adopt international best practices in the area of public administration. This strategy unifies efforts within a strategic framework with clear objectives, based on detailed studies (and)...clearly identifies and integrates federal and local efforts.
A key focus of this UAE government strategy was to create synergy between federal and local governments. Other principles include revitalising the regulatory and policy-making roles of the ministries and improving their decision-making mechanisms, increasing the efficiency of governmental bodies and upgrading their services in accordance with the needs of the people, as well as reviewing and upgrading existing legislation.
A significant development in this sphere was the amendment of Article 62 of the Constitution in late 2008. The amended law states that the prime minister or his deputies or any federal minister shall neither practice any professional or commercial job nor shall they enter into a business transaction with the Federal Government or local governments.
During the years 2008–2010 the strategic blueprint that was inspired by President H.H. Sheikh Khalifa’s 2005 National Work Programme, focused on planning, execution and excellence in governance, while adjusting to emerging needs and realities.
Subsequently in 2010, Vision 2021 was launched. Vision 2021 is a national charter that has been devised with the stated intention to transform the UAE into ‘one of the best countries in the world by 2021,’ the Golden Jubilee anniversary of the formation of the Federation. H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid set out the philosophy behind the charter:
As we look to the future and embark on a journey of empowerment at all levels, we must steer a course among challenges on many fronts with confidence, optimism and determination . . . We must work harder, be more innovative, more organised, and more vigilant in examining the trends and challenges that will face us . . . We are determined to respond proactively to all challenges in a way that will bequeath to future generations a legacy worthy of the pioneers who founded our great nation, a legacy defined by prosperity, security, stability, and a life filled with dignity and respect.
Vision 2021 focuses specifically on four objectives:
1. Ensure that UAE nationals have ambition and sense of responsibility, are capable of drawing the future with confidence and participate effectively in a sustainable socio-economic environment based on stability, solidarity, moderate Islamic values and national heritage.
2. Ensure a strong union with a common destiny that protects Emiratis and advocates balanced development to make the UAE an effective power.
3. Develop a knowledge-based economy that will be diverse and flexible, and led by skilled Emiratis.
4. Ensure prosperity for UAE nationals, who should enjoy a long life, good health, quality education and other government services.
In order to translate Vision 2021 into reality, six national priorities have been identified as the key focus of government strategy in the coming years:
1. Cohesive society and preserved identity
2. Safe public and fair judiciary
3. Competitive knowledge economy
4. First-rate education system
5. World-class healthcare
6. Sustainable environment and infrastructure
As the first step to achieve the goals of Vision 2021, the UAE Government Strategy 2011–2013 was launched in 2010, the first time that a three-year plan for federal spending was drawn up, based on a zero-budgeting mechanism.
The strategy strove to ensure that all government work is conducted according to a set of guiding principles that puts citizens first and promotes an accountable, lean, innovative, and forward-looking government.
The seven principles that steer government work are:
• Enhance the role of federal entities in devising effective regulations and integrated policies by successful planning and enforcement
• Enhance effective coordination and cooperation among federal entities and with local governments
• Focus on delivering high-quality, customer-centric and integrated government services
• Invest in human resource capabilities and develop leaders
• Promote efficient resource management within federal entities and leverage dynamic partnerships
• Pursue a culture of excellence through strategic thinking, continuous performance improvement and superior results
• Enhance transparency and accountable governance mechanisms throughout the federal entities
Corresponding to the federal institutions are the local governments of the seven emirates. Varying in size, they have evolved along with the country’s growth. However, their mechanisms differ from emirate to emirate, depending on factors such as population, area, and degree of development.
The largest and most populous emirate, Abu Dhabi, has its own central governing organ, the Executive Council, chaired by Crown Prince H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, under which there are a number of separate departments, equivalent to ministries. A number of autonomous agencies also exist with clearly specified powers. These include the Environmental Agency – Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage and Health Authority – Abu Dhabi.
The emirate is divided into two regions – Al Gharbia (previously known as the Western Region) and the Eastern Region, headed by Ruler’s Representatives. The main cities, Abu Dhabi and Al Ain, are administered by municipalities, each of which has a nominated Municipal Council. A municipal authority has also been created for Al Gharbia. Abu Dhabi also has a National Consultative Council, chaired by a Speaker, with 60 members selected from among the emirate’s main tribes and families.
The Dubai Executive Council, established in 2003, has similar functions for the UAE’s second-largest emirate and is headed by Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. Sharjah and Ajman also have Executive Councils. In addition to an Executive Council, Sharjah has developed its own Consultative Council. Further, Sharjah, with three enclaves on the country’s east coast, has adopted the practice of devolving some authority on a local basis, with branches of the Sharjah Emiri Diwan (Court), headed by deputy chairmen, in both Kalba and Khor Fakkan. A similar pattern of municipalities, departments and autonomous agencies can be found in each of the other emirates.
In smaller or more remote settlements, the ruler of each emirate may choose a local representative, an emir or wali, to act as a conduit through which the concerns of inhabitants may be directed to government. In most cases, these are the leading local figures, whose authority emanates both from the consensus of their community and the confidence placed in them by the ruler.
Federal and Local Government
The powers of the various federal institutions and their relationship with the separate local institutions have changed since the establishment of the state. Under the terms of the Constitution, rulers may relinquish certain areas of authority to the Federal Government – one such significant move was the decision to unify the armed forces in the mid-1970s. The 1971 Constitution also permitted each emirate to retain, or to take up, membership in the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries and the Organisation of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries, although none have done so (Abu Dhabi relinquished its membership in favour of the federation in 1971).
The relationship between the federal and local systems of government continues to evolve. As the smaller emirates have benefitted from education, for example, they have also been able to recruit personnel to local government services that were once handled on their behalf by federal institutions. These new systems of government have not, however, replaced the traditional forms that coexist alongside. The key driver behind such developments remains performance and efficiency in the delivery of services to citizens and the expatriate population residing in the UAE.
Traditionally, governments were always small, both in size and scope. This was natural, given the size of the communities and the difficult economic environment in which they existed. However, this environment valued consensus as well as participation, and the traditional form of such participation would exist within the context of a majlis or council. In this framework, issues relevant to the community were discussed and debated. Opinions were expressed and the sheikh would take these opinions into consideration prior to taking a decision.
Traditionally, the ruler of an emirate – the sheikh – was the leader of the most powerful tribe, while each tribe, and often its sub-sections, also had a chief or sheikh. These maintained their authority only as long as they were able to retain the support of their people. This, in essence, was a form of direct democracy. Part of that process was the unwritten, but strong, principle that the people should have open access to their ruler, and that he should hold a frequent and open majlis, in which his fellow citizens could voice their opinions.
Such a direct democracy, which may be ideally suited to small societies, becomes more difficult to maintain as the population grows. Simultaneously, the increasing sophistication of government administration means that many people now find it more appropriate to deal directly with these institutions on most matters, rather than seek personal meetings with their rulers.
Despite the change in times, a fascinating aspect of life in the UAE even today – and one that is essential to better understand its political system – is the way in which the institution of the majlis maintains its relevance. In many emirates, the ruler and a number of other senior family members continue to hold an open majlis, in which participants may raise a wide range of topics, both of personal interest and of broader concern. This remains an important parallel of political participation and enriches political participation in the cultural context. It is now evident that it is these elements of governance that have served as a solid foundation in maintaining the unique identity of the country against a backdrop of rapid economic and social changes.
A Balanced Approach
The changes envisioned and undertaken by the UAE leadership represent an indigenous initiative reflecting the need to transform the country’s traditional political heritage – based on consensus, the primacy of the consultative process and gradual social change – into a more modern system that takes into account the rapid socio-economic advances made since the establishment of the federation.