x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

The past as guide for a new Federal National Council

Governance by consensus has served this region well, not just for the 40-year life of the UAE but for centuries before that. The evolution of the Federal National Council is a natural extension of that traditional technique.

In February 1968 the British government, which had maintained treaty relations with the rulers of the Emirates, then known as the Trucial States, announced that it would bring its formal presence in the region to a close at the end of 1971.

The news was both unexpected and somewhat unwelcome. Politics in the region were in a process of dramatic change engendered by the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the British withdrawal from Aden, and an increasingly assertive Iran.

Discussing what steps they needed to take to deal with the changing situation in the region, the Trucial States' rulers were well aware that it was pointless to look back. After 150 years, the British were leaving.

The eventual result, of course, was the agreement reached in July 1971, 40 years ago next month, to establish the federation of the United Arab Emirates, which was formally created at the end of that year.

The negotiations were by no means easy - there were seven rulers and seven ruling families, with differing objectives and views on what could or could not be achieved.

Eventually, however, thanks to the visionary leadership of the UAE's founding father Sheikh Zayed, they managed to reach a consensus on how to move forward. Looking back it's evident that the consensus approach has been pretty successful in terms of the stability and progress of the last four decades.

During that time, of course, there have been disagreements over the best way forward for the country. One, in particular, was over the nature of the relationship between the individual emirates and the federal government, and the speed with which the structures of the federal state should evolve, a disagreement which actually led Sheikh Zayed to declare that he would not seek a second five-year term as president.

Once again, however, a consensus approach prevailed, one which on this occasion involved not only the rulers but also the people of the Emirates as well, whose opinions were loudly expressed and clearly heard. Sheikh Zayed agreed to accept re-election as the nation's president, a post he retained until his death in 2004.

The principle of consensus is a fundamental part of the way in which the UAE was founded and in the way it has developed. It's not something new, or adopted from outside: it is an essential component of the UAE's traditional society and one which has served it well, not just for 40 years, but for 400 years and more.

Views are expressed and discussed, are accepted, modified or rejected, and a step forward is then taken, with majority support, but in such a way that the minority is at least confident that its views have been considered.

So it is today with the process now under way for new elections for the Federal National Council (FNC), due to take place later this year.

It had always been intended that, one day, the country's political structure would evolve to include an element of a popular mandate for the FNC, to reflect the nature of UAE society itself. In the first partial FNC elections, in 2006, just over 6,500 people comprised the electoral colleges.

This year, according to recent statements by Dr Anwar Gargash, the Minister of State for FNC Affairs, an estimated 80,000 Emiratis will cast ballots. That will not only permit individual Emiratis to become more engaged in the political process but also encourage FNC members to take a more active approach in terms of being representatives of the public. If that works, there's scope for more change, and more electors, in the future.

The "Mother of Parliaments" in Britain took hundreds of years to evolve, not just in terms of its legislative authority but also in how it was elected. It's only been 60 years, in fact, since the last parliamentary seats for the universities, elected by university graduates, were abolished.

In that process of evolution - which was not always characterised by a search for consensus  - there were two major elements. One, of course, was the expansion of the electorate. But another, often forgotten, point was a process by which parliamentarians showed themselves not to be just responsible legislators, but also proper representatives of those who had elected them.

There's not much benefit to be gained from having a parliamentary body whose members primarily pursue self-interest at the expense of national interest. Nor, indeed, should any government that pursues the national interest surrender authority to such a body.

Within a few weeks, the fray will commence in the UAE, with those standing for election seeking the support of the electors in each emirate. With thousands rather than hundreds of voters to convince, one hopes that candidates will present coherent views and proposals that will be of benefit to all, rather than a few.

In the future, the FNC may be granted more than advisory status, but the first step is for its members to convince both the Government and the public that they are worthy of the trust placed in them. If they're able to do so, we should expect a further expansion of public participation in the process of government to follow.

This participation will emerge out of the philosophy of political consensus that has served this country, and its people, so well for so long. This may be a gradualist approach, but it remains the best way of ensuring the continuation of the much-envied progress and stability that the country has enjoyed for the last four decades.

 

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in Emirati culture and heritage