ABU DHABI // The Government could soon give the Federal National Council the right to discuss whatever it sees fit, according to Abdul Aziz al Ghurair, the Speaker of the FNC. "Over time we expect all of our subjects and issues to be debated to have approval," he told The National. "I think over time there will be greater understanding between the parliament and the Cabinet."
At present, at least five council members have to file a request to the Cabinet to debate general questions such as the policies of federal ministries, rising commodity prices or government-funded housing projects. Approval can take several months, and is sometimes denied altogether. "We, as FNC, respect this and we always seek approval from the Cabinet," Mr al Ghurair said. "And generally we receive approval."
He went on to say there were certain situations in which the Cabinet would delay permission because the ministry concerned was still working on a strategy related to the FNC question. In December, the Cabinet rejected a request to discuss the question of national identity, to the dismay of many council members. Some FNC members described the decision as "surprising." A government minister responded that the Cabinet had the right to reject the request and that the issue had already been discussed "extensively".
The same month, the FNC term was extended from two years to four in a constitutional amendment that also gave the council the right to discuss some international treaties before they are ratified by the Government. However, some members have argued that the FNC should be independent of the Government if it is meant to be a parliament. The 40-member body is a member of the International Inter-Parliamentary Union, with half of its members elected by an electoral college of 6,689 men and women in the country's first elections in 2006.
In the interview, Mr al Ghurair said it was up to the country's leadership to introduce reforms that would vest real parliamentary powers in the FNC, such as the right to sack ministers should they be involved in corruption. "There is a gradual understanding drawn up by the Government towards political empowerment," he said. What Mr al Ghurair termed a "shift toward political participation" began in 2005 when Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, the President of the UAE, announced that half of the FNC's members would be elected.
In November, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, urged the FNC to get closer to the people and bring committee meetings out from behind closed doors. Since then, several committees have stepped up their field visits, with one visiting the country's fishing communities to draft a report on fisheries. Mr al Ghurair said he was satisfied with the performance of the FNC members.
"All members do contribute, whether they are appointed or elected, male or female, depending on the subject of expertise they have," he said. "Now, some excel depending on their background. We have a mix of experience. We leverage that experience depending on what subject we bring to the FNC for discussion." Any change is unlikely before the FNC reconvenes in October, and although there are already several pressing matters awaiting its attention, such as Emiratisation and food security, others, including the impact of the financial crisis and federal salary discrepancies, will not be discussed.
These are off the table because the Government has not yet approved them for discussion. The need to employ more UAE citizens, especially in the private sector, is a recurring concern of the Government as a whole, and has been discussed by the FNC many times since it was first brought up in 1973. The topic of food security, however, is a new one for the council. Although it has frequently discussed rising prices, the broader question of continuing access to sufficient and affordable food has not been explored in any depth before.
The country's overseas agricultural projects are expected to be the focus of this discussion. English in schools is another controversial item on the agenda. After many meetings with education experts and officials, the committee tasked with drafting a report on the issue is expected to recommend that English be taught as a second language in primary schools rather than used as an instruction language, as in the case in the Government's Al Ghad Schools.
Other subjects still being scrutinised by FNC committees include the Government's media policies, the policies of the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Justice, and the protection of fish stocks. email@example.com