How would you judge the performance of the Federal National Council, the nationwide advisory body of elected representatives? Journalists often asked me this question after the start of the last term in 2007. I would reply: don't ask now; ask us when our term expires.
Now that the latest session is behind us, perhaps it's time to try and provide an answer.
Days after our term ended, government leaders unveiled plans to expand the number of eligible voters in the next round of elections, a clear commitment to the FNC's ongoing evolution. This followed praise from Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, President of the UAE, who congratulated the performance of the FNC and its members, and specifically the role of women. Efforts to advocate on behalf of the nation's women is indeed a bright spot in the council's tenure.
However, the FNC also has its share of critics. The prominent Emirati intellectual Abdul Ghaffar Hussain wrote about his dismay with the performance of the FNC and questioned whether it should be eliminated entirely. Commentators have accused FNC members of having been struck by "premature ageing", being inactive and not at all in touch with the Emirati street.
I believe in the sanctity of free and responsible speech and constructive criticism, which is healthy and necessary for progress. Indeed, this was the original mandate of the FNC since its creation. And while I disagree with the logic of these critics, they do highlight a frustration with its role, specifically in its limited authority and effectiveness.
To understand the current reality of any entity, one must first understand the context and history behind it. Thirty-nine years ago, the FNC was founded as one of the five branches of the UAE Federal Government. Through the UAE Constitution, the founding fathers set out a political structure that would ensure a gradual evolution of the FNC into a fully empowered parliamentary body.
The key words here are gradual and evolution. These principles were meant to nurture stability as the political process matured. A society requires the proper institutions and mindsets to implement and safeguard a democracy.
Consider the context of the founding of the UAE. As a young society with a historically tribal political structure, it was imperative to reinforce central leadership. Fledgling countries require benevolent leaders with enough charisma, compassion, skill and strategy to ensure decisions that result in a better life for the people. We have seen this progress in the UAE as a result of this centralised, benevolent rule.
The challenge we face today is that the FNC's role is fundamentally the same as the day it was created. Building a legislative body is a process and yes, this process is continuing. Recent news that the size of the electoral pool of eligible voters will be increased for the next session is a major milestone in the FNC's development, and will ensure more Emiratis are able to participate in the building of a civil society.
But more needs to be done. For one, I believe in the need for a joint committee to work between the council and the cabinet, in order to begin the process of joint legislation. This would be an early phase building towards the time when the council fully legislates.
To nurture this evolution, we also need to build a parliamentary culture in our society. By parliamentary culture I mean a civil society that is aware and passionate about progressive public service and the role that an individual can play in contributing to the national agenda. Building this culture means mobilising media and education towards this goal. Former FNC members must be encouraged to be activists who educate civil society about the role of the FNC and share the tools necessary to become an effective representative.
In a parliamentary culture, candidates should be judged and elected based on a track record of public service. This is critical to ensure that people do not vote for candidates because of tribal relations, business affiliations or gender perceptions, but rather based on the merits of the candidate and their commitment to progressive public service. We should also introduce rules that ensure competent women are represented in an equitable manner to give voice to issues related to the gender gap.
The Gulf has a long history of democracy; perhaps not western democracy, but a desert democracy known as the majlis system, whereby the hopes and concerns of the people have been heard and addressed directly by the rulers. While this tradition endures, its steady evolution is critical.
In the long run, the FNC is one of the institutions fundamental to sustainability and good governance. Considerable work must be done on multiple levels to move this body forward. This can only be achieved by deepening the partnership between government and civil society.
Najla Al Awadhi is a former member of the Federal National Council. She was one of the first women to join the FNC and its youngest member