September 24 marked a special day for the UAE, a day to remember as newspapers and television channels covered the Federal National Council elections minute by minute. One common theme on Saturday morning was striking, with Arabic-language media describing the elections as a wedding, while a voter in Sharjah told The National that "Democracy is like a bride".
Early in the morning, one of the candidates called to tell me that voters were already queuing in front of polling stations before they opened. That made me want to be part of this national experience. So, despite the fact that I did not have the right to vote, I joined the flock of Emiratis marching towards the polling stations.
It took me at least 30 minutes to find a parking spot near the Dubai World Trade Centre. From the first, it was clear that a diverse cross-section of Emirati society was in attendance. One man was impatiently arguing with security staff, saying that he would only need 10 minutes to cast his vote, so why couldn't he park on the pavement? And then I saw an elderly woman wearing a traditional abaya and burqa limping away from the building after casting her vote.
As I entered, a smiling Takaful volunteer approached me and asked if I needed help. She took me through the voting process and explained the steps involved to vote. I was especially impressed by the facilities that enabled special needs voters to cast their ballots.
After I thanked my guide and explained that I was not there to vote but just to watch, she replied that she had one vote left and asked my recommendation. Speaking patriotically, I had to mention my favourite candidate and she kindly promised to vote for him. Funny enough, a friend of mine who had felt guilty after promising to vote for no less than eight candidates had also asked me to help to narrow down his choices.
Outside the poll station in the reception area, many voters, journalists, friends, supporters and candidates were gathered. I saw people connecting with each other, women and men, young and old. Some men and women were exchanging smiles and looks that I assure you were far from innocent.
One candidate walked confidently around, his pockets filled with flyers that he was passing around. I shook the hand of a friend of one of my favourite candidates and, with considerable humour, realised that he had folded a tiny political leaflet the size of a Post-it note between his fingers and discreetly slipped it into my hand.
It was interesting how people were actively discussing various topics and agendas. You could feel all eyes and ears on alert with many people eavesdropping on nearby discussions.
Most striking, however, is that I haven't seen an event where so much national pride was so obvious. On Saturday, the UAE challenged the belief that Emiratis are not politically involved. True, the turnout, particularly in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, was lower than expected, but at the polls that day it was obvious that fellow citizens showed great enthusiasm to support gradual change and participate towards that agenda.
In a recent television interview, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, responded to questions asking whether the UAE is late in expanding the vote for the FNC. Sheikh Mohammed replied that other countries which started before the UAE have not necessarily progressed further, and that this model of sustainable development would create a new culture of participation.
When the polling stations closed, I was among many Emiratis glued to the TV screen watching for the election results. It was a new experience for many of us; a funny tweet saying: "I'm going to get fried chicken and watch the election results."
In the end, after all the results were finally revealed, the turnout numbers disappointed a little. For all of us who had arrived early at the polls on a historic day, there were many others who stayed home and couldn't be bothered to vote. It shows that the FNC is a work in progress.
For me, I salute everyone who took the bold step to run as a candidate. It is a logical step for any person who has a sense of belonging and responsibility towards the nation and its people. Many people argue that, simply, if you don't vote, then you don't care in this, the biggest election process in UAE history.
Sheikh Maktoum bin Butti Al Maktoum is a social commentator based in Dubai