x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Cheaper phone calls are on FNC's agenda

A new session starts today and the government will respond to calls for the promotion of Arabic and justice reforms.

ABU DHABI // The Government will today address calls by FNC members to promote the teaching of Arabic, reform the justice ministry and pressure telecom operators to lower their prices.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Prime Minister and Vice President of the UAE, will open the new session of the Federal National Council (FNC) with an address to the council, royal family, army and government officials.

His speech comes at a significant time in the council's history, as the term of its first elected representatives comes to an end in February.

However, there is uncertainty over what will happen then, as no details of fresh elections have been released by the Government.

"As members we do not know what is going on in the mind of the Government," said Abdul Raheem al Shaheen, a representative from Sharjah.

Half of the current 40 FNC members were chosen by the seven ruling families. The rest were elected in 2006 by 6,600 Emiratis also chosen by the families.

The council does not draft legislation, but it can debate laws, question ministers and pass recommendations to the Government.

However, it is unclear whether the FNC will continue in its current form, Dr al Shaheen said.

Several members fear there is too little time for an election or a proper campaign. Dr al Shaheen echoed these concerns, saying he hoped the country would avoid "last-second decisions".

During the session, Dr Anwar Gargash, Minister of State for FNC Affairs, is to respond to the council's proposal for reforms to the justice ministry's policies. These reforms were suggested alongside accusations by Mohammed al Zaabi, a member from Sharjah, that the justice ministry had been interfering in criminal cases.

Dr Gargash will also respond to an FNC report that criticised the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) for failing to prevent the use of computer software that enables access to forbidden websites. Members have also called on the TRA to force telecom providers to lower their prices.

The Government intends to respond to the education, youth, media and culture committee, which has accused the education ministry of failing to teach Arabic adequately in the Madares al Ghad (Schools of Tomorrow) project.

A proposed consumer protection law is also on the agenda. The financial affairs committee is urging the ministry of economy to take a tough line on companies that use a so-called "sleeping sponsor" - a silent Emirati partner not involved in the running of the company - to get around majority local ownership rules.

Failing to punish offending companies "has resulted in big financial losses for the nation and primarily locals have been wronged", said Abdullah al Mansouri, the committee's chairman.

Prior to the new session, the speaker of the FNC, Abdul Aziz al Ghurair, sought to focus on the chamber's achievements in the previous legislative session and its plans for the coming months.

"The FNC will continue its work during the fifth ordinary session in studying draft laws, debating a number of general topics and presenting questions that deal with a lot of important issues," said Mr al Ghurair. "The council will continue its work abroad by following and interacting with different issues on the regional and international parliamentary scene."

The council convened 14 times during its previous session, which closed in June for the summer recess. It posed 56 questions to government ministers on issues ranging from the pensions of retired military officers to increasing the political engagement of citizens. Its committees held 198 hours worth of meetings and participated in 47 parliamentary conferences and meetings.