The United Arab Emirates will increase the number of citizens eligible to vote for a national advisory council to 129,000 from a previously planned 80,000, the state news agency announced on Monday, the latest move to give them a bigger say in government.
This means about 12 percent of the estimated one million UAE citizens will be able to vote in September's election for the Federal National Council (FNC), the UAE's top advisory body, a huge increase from the 7,000 Emiratis who voted for half the members of the previous council. The other half were appointed.
The agency said the increase is part of a drive toward greater democratization in the world's third biggest oil exporter, which has so far avoided demonstrations for democracy and rights of the kind seen in Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain.
The UAE's total population is estimated at 4.5 million, a large majority of them expatriates.
"The Emirates, through this big step toward expanding the number of members of electoral committees, confirms that it is moving toward promoting political participation," Minister of State Anwar Mohammed Gargash said in a statement.
Critics say the council has little real power and is largely an advisory group.
Gargash said in an interview last month that the plan to increase the number of people eligible to vote was prompted by the turmoil sweeping the Arab world.
Tunisians and Egyptians calling for reform toppled their long-established presidents earlier this year, while leaders in Syria, Yemen, Libya and Bahrain are grappling with varying degrees of opposition to their continued rule.
In March, a group of UAE intellectuals collected 160 signatures on a petition calling for free and democratic elections.
One of the activists who signed the petition is now on trial along with four other people on charges of "insulting the president, vice president and the crown prince of Abu Dhabi" and committing "acts that threaten state security and public order."