This month's FNC elections are another step in the development of a new social contract in the UAE.
FNC election gives the public a voice in future change
The UAE has entered a new stage in its national development. Four decades after the founding of the federation, elections for the Federal National Council are being expanded in the institutional and constitutional framework, following the 2006 experience.
The UAE's leaders have shown their commitment to modernising the country on every level: a solid market economy; improved and expanded institutions; and increased administrative capability are all part of this process.
But in addition to the domestic drive for development, the recent social unrest in the Arab world has had a marked impact on the thinking of regional governments. Although the UAE is unique partly due to its national wealth and progress, it has not been immune to these forces.
In these changing times, the UAE requires a new engagement by society and an active role in the day-to-day functioning of the country. In more practical terms, our institutions must strengthen areas of accountability, transparency and the rule of law, as well as introduce civil participation in the decision-making process.
The FNC is a government advisory body without actual legislative powers. Under Article 110 of the UAE Constitution, draft legislation becomes law after the Council of Ministers prepares a bill, submits it to the FNC, and then to the President for his approval. The bill is then presented to the Supreme Council for ratification.
The same article states that if the FNC inserts amendments or rejects the bill, the president or the Supreme Council may send it back to the FNC. If the FNC again introduces an amendment that is not acceptable to the president or the Supreme Council, or if the Federal National Council decides to reject the bill, the president may still promulgate the law after it has been ratified.
Naturally this raises numerous questions. As an advisory body, what function does the FNC have to help develop the political and constitutional framework of the UAE? And how, over time, might the FNC's powers be expanded to integrate citizens' social and economic ambitions into the political system?
The balance of citizen representation and executive power in passing legislation has been debated in every political system in the world. One model that is relevant to the UAE is found in the British example of the "statutory instrument", which allows legislation to be modified by subsequent laws. In early examples, the executive was empowered to modify legislation after it had already been passed.
The rationale is that when legislation is put into practice, it may require amendments for it to work effectively. And in some cases, the executive authority is the only body with the experience and familiarity with the law and its applications to make the decision.
The UAE's stability has allowed it to focus greater attention on social and economic development. But often these changes have come with little public input. The FNC election this month is therefore an endeavour to lay the groundwork for stronger rule of law and general reform of the legislative structure that will give the public a greater voice in future change.
The informational seminars on the electoral process - and government officials' calls for people to embrace the experience - should be combined with schools and universities educating a new generation on the core principles of the process. This should include a sophisticated understanding of the specific legislative mechanism that will drive the UAE in the future. Of particular concern is how the political structure will complement ambitious plans for economic development.
There is little question that the UAE's dynamics are special, both in terms of social structure and the federal arrangement unifying the emirates. In a regional report on the business and legal environment in the Middle East and North Africa, the Arab Centre for the Rule of Law and Integrity distinguished the UAE because of the decentralised decision-making among the emirates.
"The UAE is different in terms of legislation levels," the report said. "Each emirate has its own federal and domestic legislation and the constitution allowed them to have their own rules and judicial authority on the stipulation that they do not contradict the federal laws. Local laws are issued by the governor of the emirate thus they are apt for fast development and modernisation where they are not submitted to multilevel parliamentarian procedures or political disputes."
The FNC will continue to work within this political framework. Campaigning that began yesterday is the subject of extensive national and international media coverage, with some Emiratis describing the process as a step towards meaningful change, whereas others have expressed disappointment at the authority provided the FNC.
That process of discussion is a beginning in and of itself. The question now is where the debate will lead.
Diana Hamade is an Emirati lawyer and legal consultant. She is the founder of International Advocate Legal Services in Dubai