September 24 ushers in the next phase of political empowerment in the UAE. On that day, more Emiratis will be eligible to vote in elections than before.
The UAE's road map towards the political empowerment of citizens essentially began in 2006 with the first Federal National Council elections. But in those elections, fewer than 7,000 Emiratis were allowed to vote; in 2011, nearly 130,000 Emiratis will be enfranchised with voting rights.
As one of the first women in the UAE's history to become a member of the Federal National Council, I feel an obligation to share some of my humble experiences and insights. This will shine some light on the paths of future council members.
During my four-year term, I found ideological divides among FNC members that were amplified during our debate sessions. Such ideological debates are healthy and necessary in dissecting all the possible solutions that can contribute towards good governance.
However, in all of these debates that took place publicly in council sessions and privately during our closed committee meetings, there were consistently two issues that all members of the FNC agreed on: the necessity of empowering the FNC with legislative authority and the unquestionable trust and bond that all members of the FNC felt towards the UAE's rulers.
Political empowerment in the UAE must be viewed in the context of the social contract between the ruling families and the citizenry. The Emirati structure of government has allowed for growth and dignity for citizens and expatriates living in the UAE as the country has undergone rapid change.
This does not mean that we are in a perfect society; there is no such thing in human history. However, the UAE is a society that is evolving, so political empowerment is also in a state of evolution. The evolution of the FNC is fundamental to this long-term, sustainable economic and social growth.
Political empowerment is not purely about giving people the right to vote or run for office. It is primarily about building institutions that uphold transparency, accountability, sound policies and a balance of power that ensures protection against the abuse of power.
"I'm sorry, but we feel you members of the FNC did not do enough for us," an Emirati man once told me. "You have raised our heads and made us proud," another Emirati confided. The truth lies somewhere in between, because we members of the last FNC term did as much as we could within our authority, but often we wished that we could do more.
My experience in my four years of dealing with constituents is that they were simply not aware of the nature of the authority that was wielded by the FNC; namely that the council does not have the right to legislate or to debate issues without the approval of the Government. As such, there are major institutionalised limitations.
However, I would also argue that at this stage in the history of the UAE's political evolution, FNC members should seek to have maximum influence within the powers given to them, which will in time advance the argument to further expand the FNC's authority. With this in mind, I offer some advice from my experience to future members of the council.
The majority of an FNC member's time should be spent in the field, surveying the actual needs and challenges facing Emiratis on a person-to-person basis. This will help to define policy issues that need to be addressed and will also raise awareness about the FNC's role.
An engaged populace is an empowered populace, so FNC members must constantly engage members of society, through social media, radio, print news and television.
This is the age of social media. In these elections FNC candidates have begun to embrace new outlets such as Twitter or Facebook, although in the previous term I was one of a very few members who utilised these new channels of communication. If we ignore these outlets that so many people now rely on, we are not truly capitalising on the penetration of social media in the UAE. Social media is especially necessary to reach our young people and to create awareness about political empowerment.
In reality, it is premature to call for immediate legislative powers without aggressive and strategic investment in the FNC's capacity to legislate as an institution. Moreover, we must first invest in the advancement of a culture of political empowerment through the education system and media.
There will always be demagogues and extremist mindsets on the council floor. Part of being a progressive member is managing these views through focused, factual and passionate dialogue to counter retrogressive arguments.
This forward momentum is apparent in the changing role of women in political affairs; it is important that we do not limit ourselves. While female members of the FNC should address every relevant national issue, they should not shy away from also championing causes that relate specifically to women's issues, ideally through the formation of an FNC Family and Women's Affairs Committee.
The path towards universal suffrage, political empowerment and the building of progressive institutions is not an easy one. The UAE is surrounded by examples of political failures that caused the revolutions of the Arab Spring. September 24, 2011 is just one more step on a bumpy road towards an Emiratised democracy.
Najla Al Awadhi is a former member of the Federal National Council