Peter C Baker at the first meeting of Abu Dhabi's American Democrats.
On May 21, 1832, delegates of the US Democratic party met in Baltimore, Maryland for the party's first national convention. Their purpose was two-fold: to officially renominate the incumbent president, Andrew Jackson, as their presidential candidate; and to select Jackson's running mate (John Calhoun, his first-term vice president, had resigned after realising that he probably disagreed with Jackson over just about everything). Something about the practice stuck, and Democratic voting delegations, one from each American state, have been convening every four years since.
Since 1976, they have been joined by a delegation representing US Democrats living overseas. Today, Democrats Abroad is recognised by the Democratic National Committee as the practical equivalent of a state party with 11 convention votes. Six delegates, each armed with half a vote, represent a sprawling "Europe - Middle East - Africa" regional caucus. These delegates are typically high-ranking members of national Democrats Abroad chapters. The UAE does not yet have such a chapter.
About a month ago, US citizens who had identified themselves as UAE residents when registering for democratsabroad.org received an e-mail inviting them to the inaugural meeting of UAE Democrats Abroad, to be held simultaneously at the Après Restaurant in the Mall of the Emirates in Dubai and the Zyara Cafe next to the Hilton Residence in Abu Dhabi. It takes 50 signatures to start an official chapter. When I walked into Zyara - an abstract art-strewn coffee shop much like one where eager democrats might meet in New York or Los Angeles - I didn't see 50 Democrats. In fact, had there not been a handwritten "Democrats Abroad" sign taped to the door, I would have assumed I'd come to the wrong place, and left. Reading the look on my face, a waiter asked me, "Democrat?" I nodded nervously, and he pointed me to a back table where two women were sitting.
One of the women was Jumana Nabti, the meeting's organiser."When we booked the restaurant, we told the restaurant to expect between five and 50 people," she explained. "No one really knows who is on that e-mail list, or if they even still live here." Nabti moved to Abu Dhabi just over a year ago to work for the Department of Transport. She had previously lived in Lebanon (she is half Lebanese), where she started the Democrats Abroad chapter. During our meeting, her brother David was sleeping after four days of representing US Democrats who live in Lebanon at the party's convention in Denver, Colorado.
After half an hour, a married couple who had just moved to Abu Dhabi from New York showed up. "What's the point of Democrats abroad?" the man wanted to know. Nabti talked about registering voters, watching debates and meeting other Americans. "But this is definitely the very first meeting," she admitted. "We can do whatever you guys are interested in doing. We can do happy hours if you want." Another couple - two professors at Sheikh Zayed University - showed up and apologised for being late. "Its OK," Nabti reassured them. "We're in the Middle East. 4pm means whenever."
People kept trickling in. By 5pm, almost a dozen had showed up. People traded stories of waking up early to watch primary results and convention speeches live on CNN. They talked about how a debate party might work, given the US-UAE time difference: should someone tape the debates? Who even has a VCR these days? Maybe they could be downloaded? Someone tried to use their Blackberry to look up the debate schedule on barackobama.com. Everyone started wondering aloud when their ballots were due; Jumana reminded them that the date varied by state, and directed them to a website.
"And when do they count them, anyway?" someone asked. No one knew. Talk turned to Obama and his convention speech. "What did he say about the Palestinians?" the man from New York wanted to know (he hadn't seen the speech yet). "Nothing,"everyone agreed. A tiny debate started over whether this was, as one man put it, "part of the plan, part of towing the line until he's in." By the meeting's end, the couple from Sheikh Zayed had tentatively agreed to host an election night party, though everyone remained unclear how it would work. Would it be an early breakfast party? Or a long, long evening party?
"I'm wondering -" hesitated the woman. "We want to have people over for celebrations. What if we're not celebrating? We'll just be crying in our drinks."