In a landmark announcement in 2005, the Government declared its intention to strengthen the representative nature of government, with the objective of wider political participation by the citizenry. A year later, moving closer to that promise, half of the 40 members of the Federal National Council (FNC) were elected, for the first time in the country's history, by a small number of super-electors. Ever since, the FNC's role and visibility have grown as it fulfilled its mandate to question ministers and discuss the national budget. That mandate ends in February 2011, with new elections expected before. But first, a new electoral law needs to be passed, and the Government has not yet disclosed whether the number of eligible voters will be expanded for the next elections.
This is a good moment for FNC members to take stock of their performance over the past four years and suggest reforms. Notably, a senior member, Ali Jasem, is calling for lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. Similar thinking is coming from the Government: on Sunday, a senior official from the Ministry that oversees the FNC urged young Emiratis at Zayed University to take a greater interest and participate more in national politics.
Such outreach is certainly welcome. The nation's economic and political development requires the contribution of its citizens in the major decisions that impact their lives and choices. But encouraging a culture of political participation will require a sustained commitment by everyone, from the Government to the FNC to Emirati citizens. New ideas about the FNC's mandate are needed to sustain the momentum initiated by the Government five years ago.
Just as important, a more representative system depends on the FNC's communication with the public, and growing awareness about the assembly's role in society. This fact is not lost on the FNC. Recently, one member, Dr Fatima al Mazroui, did not shy away from telling the chamber an unpleasant truth: "A study conducted by the House showed that as many as 89 per cent of Emiratis do not know the exact powers of the legislature or even the number of its members."
Perhaps a more empowered FNC would garner more attention, but it is also true that a greater sense of citizenship is necessary for the good of the nation. Better communication and interaction with municipalities and emirate-level agencies is also important to address Emiratis' local concerns. Participatory decision-making is not new to the UAE, as the tradition of the open majlis testifies. The question is how to institutionalise these relationships between the rulers and citizens. The UAE has a success story to tell, but what is equally important is a narrative of how that success has been built together.