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16-11-2011 - Reuters

UAE leader promises more political rights to citizens

The president of the United Arab Emirates promised greater political rights to citizens at the opening session of the country's partly elected assembly Tuesday.

Home to business hub Dubai and major oil producer Abu Dhabi, the UAE has said it is committed to gradual political reforms, but has given no timetable.

"Empowerment is the soul of the federation," Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan told members of the new Federal National Council (FNC), an advisory assembly with few legislative powers.

"Your session today is a successful crowning of the second stage in our progress toward deepening the culture of (political) participation and enhancing its practice."

Earlier this year, the UAE increased the number of eligible voters for half of the seats of the 40-member FNC assembly to 129,000 -- nearly 20 times more than the UAE's first election.

That is still only around 12 percent of UAE nationals.

Ministers have signaled they will continue to expand the electoral pool until all Emiratis can vote but critics say that this is meaningless as long as the FNC has no real power.

"Your people, your highness, are looking forward to you through their representatives ... to have a more potent role for the national council so it can fulfill its commitments to the Emirati people," the assembly's new speaker, Mohammed Ahmed al-Mur, said in his inaugural address.

The UAE's constitution gives the assembly the right to debate laws drafted by government ministries and suggest changes to them, but their changes can be overruled by the country's president.

New assembly members said they wanted more legislative powers to allow them to hold government officials accountable and make binding decisions.

"Its decisions should be more powerful, especially because people tell us 'you are useless'," Rashad Bukhash, an elected member from Dubai, said. "This is why there was low turnout in the election; people don't see that the council has a strong supervisory power."

Just over a quarter of eligible voters cast their ballots in September's elections.

Among the world's top five oil exporters, the UAE is a federation of seven emirates, each governed by a ruling family that transfers power from father to son, or brother to brother.

It has remained immune from the public protests that have swept other Arab countries and toppled heads of state in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

The UAE has moved swiftly to quash any dissent. Five political activists and bloggers are currently on trial on charges of insulting the country's rulers and urging protests.


Other sources on GCC civil society and human rights