x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Gulf councils reflect diversity of the region

The national assemblies of the six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council vary greatly in their appointment and powers.

The Gulf Cooperation Council countries may be known for their powerful royal families, vast reserves of energy and an arid climate, but they also share another important trait: every country has, with varying degrees of potency, a national assembly, although they go by a variety of names. With kingdoms, emirates and a sultanate, it is perhaps unsurprising that the region's assemblies are diverse. In Kuwait, the parliament is fully elected. In Bahrain, an elected chamber sits alongside an equally sized, royal-appointed house to make their mark on legislation. Saudi Arabia's Consultative Council is entirely chosen by the king.

Whether MPs have the power to block legislation and confront ministers in a lively parliamentary questioning - and in some cases even dismiss them - or they are effectively a rubber stamp for government policy, each GCC country has an institution that is a member of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, an international body of some 143 states that has observer status at the United Nations and can lay claim to being the country's parliament.

In addition to a royal family and an assembly, each GCC country has a council of ministers, a cabinet, which is appointed by the ruler. Royal family members traditionally dominate the key portfolios of defence, the interior and foreign affairs, known as the "ministries of sovereignty", along with other senior posts. Political parties are illegal throughout the GCC, though some countries tolerate political groups or societies. Voters in Kuwait and Bahrain even elect some MPs who are labelled "opposition" candidates, though, unlike the West, opposition is a fluid concept which depends on individual issues rather than membership in a party. The assemblies of Saudi Arabia, Oman, the UAE and Qatar primarily exist to advise the government, while those of Kuwait and Bahrain have more extensive powers. But members in all six GCC bodies have consistently pushed for stronger roles to make and amend legislation or hold government ministers to account.

Federal National Council is now half elected Much of the power in the UAE lies with the rulers of each emirate and they meet four times every year as the Federal Supreme Council. Every five years the council members elect a president, which has always been the ruler of Abu Dhabi, and vice president, which has always been the ruler of Dubai. The national assembly, the Federal National Council (FNC), or Majlis al Watani al Ittahadi, was established in 1972 to advise the Supreme Council. The 40-seat council was fully appointed by the rulers until 2006 when a presidential resolution allowed 6,689 Emiratis, including 1,189 women, to elect half of its members.

The rulers select the other half of the members and also chose who can vote, who can stand and the voting age in each emirate. The seats are weighted according to population. Abu Dhabi and Dubai select eight MPs, Sharjah and Ras al Khaimah select six. Ajman, Umm al Quwain and Fujairah select four MPs each. The FNC meets twice a month for eight months a year during its four-year term to discuss international treaties and agreements, and debate the policies of federal ministers and the federal budget. It can also question members of the Cabinet, even if they are royal family members.

The government proposes laws, not the FNC, but federal bills do have to be discussed in the chamber, with the presence of a minister, before they are ratified by the Supreme Council. In many cases, the discussions have led to modifications of the laws. The UAE's 22-member Cabinet currently includes four women and nine royals, including the Prime Minister. In 2006, one woman was elected to the FNC and another eight were appointed.

First female minister appointed in 2004 Tension between the Sunni elite and the Shiite majority - about 70 per cent of the population - is reflected in Bahrain's parliament, which was resurrected in 2002. A new constitution at the same time also changed Bahrain's status from an emirate to a kingdom, transforming the emir to king. The country's only previous experiment with a parliament lasted just two years before it was suspended by the current king's father in 1975 when he objected to a state-sponsored security law.

The new National Assembly has two chambers. Every four years, Bahrainis older than 20 and resident citizens of other GCC states elect 40 members to the Chamber of Deputies, the Majlis al Nawab, and the king appoints 40 members to the Consultative Council, the Majlis al Shura. The two houses vote separately on bills, and if they cannot agree vote as one body on the law. The large proportion of royal-appointed MPs severely curtails the elected representatives' power to block legislation. MPs can question ministers and instigate a vote of confidence, but the vote must pass first with a two-thirds majority in the Chamber of Deputies and then by two thirds of the National Assembly.

A minister has never been voted out of office, and the prime minister is protected from interpellations by the constitution. The Shiites complain that they are under-represented in the Consultative Council and gerrymandered in the electoral districts too - their main political group currently holds 17 of the Chamber of Deputies' 40 seats. Bahrain's Council of Ministers includes many members of the royal family. The 24-member cabinet includes the prime minister, who is the king's uncle, and 11 other royals. Two of the 24 are women.

Women contested and voted in the 2002 election, but failed to win a seat. Bahrain's first female minister was appointed in 2004, and the first woman was elected in 2006 when she ran uncontested.

Members can block government legislation Kuwait is often held up as an example of what happens when you give a Gulf parliament teeth. Kuwaiti MPs have more power to block legislation and remove ministers than any other GCC state, but not all Kuwaitis believe that is a good thing. Rows between the government and MPs have led to constant turmoil in recent years and the country's development has suffered as a result. The National Assembly, the Majlis al Umma, which opened in 1962, is the Gulf's oldest democratic institution, but has been suspended twice: for five years in 1976 and six years in 1986. Kuwaitis older than 21 elect 50 MPs every four years and the cabinet, which is appointed by the emir, can also vote on legislation. The cabinet must not exceed in numbers more than one-third of the strength of parliament and must include at least one MP. There are 16 ministers in the current government, including six royals. The numerical weight of elected MPs in the assembly makes it relatively easy for them to block government legislation.

The constitution allows any MP to question any member of the cabinet and this happens regularly. If MPs instigate a motion of no-confidence after the interpellation, the minister will be dismissed if the elected MPs who are not in the cabinet achieve a majority of the house. A minister has never been dismissed before, though some resigned when the vote became inevitable. In the past, the prime minister has reshuffled the cabinet to avoid votes, especially when a royal family member was threatened.

Even the prime minister, who is currently the emir's nephew, is not above questioning, but this has never happened. The emir has used such tactics as dissolving the parliament or the cabinet has resigned to protect the prime minister. Women received full political rights in 2005 and two were picked for the cabinet in the same year. Four women grabbed headlines when they were elected to the parliament for the first time this year.

Council's two chambers are consultative A great deal of power in Oman is centralised on the sultan. He is the head of state, the prime minister and holds the portfolios of defence, foreign affairs and finance. He rules one of the oldest independent states in the Arab world by decree. The country's parliament, the Council of Oman, the Majlis Oman, has two chambers. It consists of the Consultation Council, the Majlis al Shura, which is elected by Omanis older than 21, and the State Council, the Majlis al Dawla, which is fully appointed by the sultan. Both chambers have a four-year term.

The roles of both chambers are consultative, though they have limited powers to propose legislation. MPs cannot discuss matters relating to national security and foreign relations, initiate motions of no-confidence or block legislation. The cabinet is not bound by the Council of Oman's decisions, which are made by a majority vote. The Consultation Council, which evolved from other consultative bodies, was established in 1991, and all citizens received full voting rights in 2003. The council's 84 members meet once a month for at least eight months every year.

The State Council was established in 1997, and it includes former ministers, ambassadors and public servants older than 40. Its membership must not exceed that of the Consultation Council. Unlike other Gulf countries, the government is not loaded with members of the royal family. The current cabinet has 32 officials with ministerial rank and it can propose draft laws and decrees to the ruler. Oman was the first GCC state to give women the right to stand for and vote in the limited elections of 1994, when two reached the parliament. Two women also succeeded in the first full elections of 2000, but no female candidates won seats in 2007.

Referendum approved more power for parliament Even though Qatar's small population and huge energy riches could provide the emir with a powerful pretext to limit citizens' participation, it does have an advisory council, the Majlis al Shura. A constitution laying out a more powerful parliament was also approved by a national referendum in 2003. Since the referendum, parliamentary elections scheduled for 2007 and 2008 have been delayed. The government said this was to provide more time to draft an elections law.

Qatar's only elections to date were for the municipality in 1999 and 2003. The 1999 election was the first time women could stand for and vote in full elections in the GCC, but Qataris did not elect a female candidate until 2003. The Advisory Council was established in 1972. All of its 35 members are appointed by the emir, who also appoints the Council of Ministers. The Advisory Council has never had any female members.

The parliament can propose to discuss public issues in the chamber and issue unbinding recommendations to the cabinet, but the final decisions on all legislation are made by the emir. The Advisory Council meets every Monday for eight months each year during its four-year term. The new constitution outlines universal elections for a 45-seat parliament, with 30 elected members and 15 selected by the emir. The MPs powers were to include the right to legislate, question ministers and "seek explanations" from the prime minister, and they were to have the right to withhold confidence from ministers with a two-thirds majority of the house. The voting age will be defined in the new elections law, which has not yet passed.

Qatar's 20-member cabinet is currently headed by the emir's cousin. In 2003, Qatar became the first Gulf state to appoint a female minister and a second was appointed in 2008.

No public oversight of appointed assembly Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy and the king, who is also the prime minister, appoints all 150 members of the country's parliament, the Consultative Council, the Majlis al Shura, every four years.

The council was formed in 1992 and its primary role has been to advise the Council of Ministers. The council's role was expanded in 2005, allowing it to propose new legislation or amendments to laws. Before 2005, the resolutions had to be brought before the cabinet for approval, but now they can go directly to the king. The king also appoints the Council of Ministers, which currently consists of the prime minister, the deputy prime minister - who is the crown prince and minister of defence - and 21 other ministers with portfolios in addition to seven ministers of state.

The Council of Ministers meets in private every week and can amend decisions taken by the Consultative Council. It passes legislation with a majority vote that must be ratified by the king. Even though Saudi's parliament has never been elected, the country has held elections before. In 2005, half of the 178 seats in the municipal councils were chosen by Saudi males older than 21. The cabinet postponed the 2009 elections until 2011, saying that it needed to study the electorate and the possibility of allowing women to vote.

Women were not eligible to vote in the last elections and have never held a seat in the Consultative Council. Female success in the government has been limited to the appointment of one woman to a ministerial post in a cabinet reshuffle of February this year. jcalderwood@thenational.ae mhabboush@thenational.ae