x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Constitutional amendments represent a 'historic step'

Some view move as precursor to further empowerment of the Federal National Council while others say more needs to be done.

Abdul Aziz al Ghurair, Speaker of the Federal National Council, takes questions during a press conference in Abu Dhabi.
Abdul Aziz al Ghurair, Speaker of the Federal National Council, takes questions during a press conference in Abu Dhabi.

ABU DHABI // Abdul Aziz al Ghurair, Speaker of the Federal National Council, described the new constitutional amendments that have vested further powers in the federal body as a "historic step". Introduced on Tuesday by the Supreme Council, made up of the ruler of each emirate, the amendments give the FNC, for the first time since its creation in 1972, the right to discuss international agreements and treaties before the Government signs them. The rulers also extended the FNC's term from two to four years, starting with the current council, which was due to dissolve in February. "The constitutional amendments come as yet another step, stemming from the President's [Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed] political programme, to empower the FNC and boosts democracy and political participation," Mr al Ghurair said in a written statement issued last night. Before the amendments were made the Government would only notify the FNC about agreements and treaties that it had already signed. Under the changes, members will be able make suggestions to the President before certain agreements are signed. He will refer some of these agreements to the FNC, but their nature is not clear yet. Mr al Ghurair said the President would issue a decree at a later date that would define the nature of agreements and treaties discussed by the council. The latest amendments will be discussed by the Cabinet and the FNC before they are referred back to the Supreme Council for final approval. Sultan al Suwaidi, an FNC representative from Dubai, said the amendments were suggested by the council to the country's rulers earlier this year. "The council wanted to look at the agreements before they were signed," he said yesterday. "What's the point of only notifying us about agreements already signed?" The FNC had been already involved in foreign policy activities, even though such issues were mostly absent from the chamber's debates. It has played its role through official visits to foreign countries and participation in international parliamentary conferences. This year, Mr al Ghurair led delegations to six European and regional countries where they met presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers, as well as their counterparts. FNC members attracted international support for UAE's right to the three islands occupied by Iran - Abu Musa and Greater and Lesser Tunbs. Some members view the new mandate as a precursor to further political empowerment, while others say more needs to be done. "Most of what is discussed in the council is federal issues, but this gives the members a chance to express their views on foreign policy issues," said Dr Fatima al Mazrouei, a member from Abu Dhabi. Another member, Khaled bin Zayed al Falasi, from Dubai, said debating international agreements "meets the people's aspirations". "With the people's participation, through their representatives, these agreements will have more legitimacy and international acceptance," he said. He hoped the amendments would lead to further political reform in the shape of an election law. Half of the current FNC was elected by a caucus nearly two years ago, though no electoral law existed. Some members hope that an election law would lead to a broadening of the electorate. But for Abdullah al Shehi, a Ras al Khaimah member, the key was to give more powers to the FNC. "The council is still an advisory body despite the amendments," Mr al Shehi said. "The question is whether, when the term is extended, the council will be working in the same way, which is giving advice without the right to draft laws." Currently, the FNC carries out its role as monitor by bringing ministers to its chamber to answer questions about issues. The questions are posed by individual members and ministers have the right to provide their answer in a written statement if they cannot attend a session. Members can discuss legislation drafted by federal ministries and bodies and suggest changes to them. Mr Ghurair and other members viewed the extension of the FNC's term positively. "It is important so that the council can achieve better results on issues at hand," said Mr Ghurair. "The two years were not enough to meet this principal objective." Ali Jasem, a member from Umm al Quwain, said the extension was a good step because it gave new members a chance to improve their performance. Of the 40 members that make up the FNC, 37 are new, including the Speaker. Mr Jasem said members need not worry about gaining legislative powers at this stage because most did not have enough experience in drafting laws. "The council should be ready, starting from now, for the times ahead," he said. "Before we ask for legislation powers we have to be qualified for that." Ahmed Shabib al Dhahiri, a member from Abu Dhabi, said the latest amendments came in the context of the leadership's effort to introduce gradual political reforms. Several other members also expressed content with the pace of reform, arguing that enough time should be given for the society to adapt to new changes before further ones are introduced. mhabboush@thenational.ae