Wednesday, June 22, 2011

UAE Discourse On Democracy

Abdulkhaleq Abdullah writes: Social landscaping of opinions indicates that there is no decisive majority on the urgency of political reforms
The sudden popular burst for dignity, freedom and political reform throughout the Arab world has sharpened public debate about the pace of democracy in the UAE. Opinions have been polarised over the central question: how many Emiratis support immediate political reform and democratisation in this oil-rich, economically prosperous and politically stable country?
In the absence of credible polls, so far it has been a guessing game: no one really knows for sure and anybody could claim anything and get away with it. Opinions expressed, often in the pages of Gulf News, have been diverse and indeed colourful. Even the government has its own take on this legitimate issue of the moment, especially given that it is fast preparing the grounds for the second voting this September.
However, a close look at the democracy discourse in the UAE reveals that the various opinions can be clearly divided into three main categories.
The first group of people, representing at least one-third of UAE citizens, has been cogently arguing against democracy per se. This segment of society seems to be content with the political status quo and would oppose any sudden move to rock the boat. Their main concern is political stability, which is viewed as paramount to economic prosperity. Essentially this conservative group is mostly made up of businessmen and traditional constituents who genuinely believe that the UAE is better off without speedy political reform. Preserving the status quo is the preferred option for this anti-democracy camp, which has been more vocal lately.
This line of thinking, no matter how loud, is however not the only perspective on democracy in the UAE. Another one-third segment of society is the pro-democracy advocates. They passionately argue that political reform has been delayed for too long already and they cogently argue that the UAE is better off with a fully elected and empowered Federal National Council. Democracy, they claim, is not only urgently needed but is also, metaphorically, the oxygen that sustains political stability and shields economic prosperity. This is the position of the politically liberal segment of UAE society, which is made up of the educated elite, the newly assertive middle class and the younger generation inspired by the current Arab Spring.
But there is also the final one-third, which is basically the silent segment of society. This segment has no strong views on the issue of democracy in the UAE. They are mainly an apolitical bunch and are happy to defer the whole issue to the government. This group is an eclectic segment of society and does not fit any neat profiling. Its perspective is mostly situational and varies according to turn of events. It easily swings from one end, the advocates of democracy, to the other extreme, the anti-reform pundits.
This social landscaping of opinions indicates that there is no decisive majority on the topic of how urgent democracy is for the UAE, which leaves the door wide open as to where the UAE government really stands on the issue of political reform.
Clearly, the government is listening tentatively to this inconclusive debate on democracy for the UAE. It is also keeping a watchful eye on the rapidly evolving events in the region and is alert to the global and the regional push for democracy. Most importantly, it knows that political reform is pending and unavoidable.
Dr Anwar Mohammad Gargash, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and Minister of State for Federal National Council Affairs, acts as the UAE political reform czar of the moment. He skillfully stirs the public debate and has been good at articulating the official position on democracy for the UAE.
In his recent public meetings he candidly admits that political reform is a legitimate demand in this country. But according to Dr Gargash, democracy in the UAE has to be approached gradually, incrementally and "at our own pace and in accordance with our national interest and as per the empowerment agenda pronounced by the President in 2006".
In other words, he prefers that people stay out of it and defer this intricate issue to the government. His message is clear; tune down the debate, be patient and simply trust the government. He insists on saying that the government has a plan for democracy and "we will eventually get to our own unique version but the country is in no rush". The verdict from the government is that the citizens of the UAE just have to wait it out.
The discourse will undoubtedly continue but unfortunately democracy, meaning a fully elected and a fully empowered FNC, is not going to be here any time soon. It could be a long wait for democracy to finally blossom in the economically prosperous, socially liberal and politically stable UAE.
-This commentary was published in The GULF NEWS on 22/06/2011
-Dr Abdulkhaleq Abdullah is a professor of political science at Emirates University

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