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Sat, 02 Aug, 2008

Political System

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Introduction

Since the establishment of the Federation in 1971, the seven emirates comprising the UAE have forged a distinct national identity through consolidation of their federal status and now enjoy an enviable degree of political stability. The UAE ’s political system, which is a unique combination of the traditional and the modern, has underpinned this political success, enabling the country to develop a modern administrative structure while at the same time ensuring that the best of the traditions of the past are maintained, adapted and preserved.

In 1971 the country's population was a mere 180,000, in an area of 83,600 square kilometers and there were substantial differences between the individual emirates, in terms of size, population, economic resources and degree of development. The larger emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai were already oil exporters, and the process of economic development was well under way. At the other end of the scale, Ajman, the smallest emirate, had an area of only 260 square kilometers, whilst the East Coast emirate of Fujairah, with only a few tens of thousands of inhabitants, was not even connected by a proper road through the mountains to the rest of the country.

Federal Constitution

Each of the component emirates of the Federation already had its own existing institutions of government and to provide for the effective governing of the new state, the Rulers agreed to draw up a provisional Constitution specifying those powers which we re to be allocated to new federal institutions, all others remaining the prerogative of the individual emirates.

Assigned to the federal authorities, under Articles 120 and 121 of the Constitution, were the areas of responsibility for foreign affairs, security and defence, nationality and immigration issues, education, public health, currency, postal, telephone and other communications services, air traffic control and licensing of aircraft, as well as a number of other topics specifically prescribed, including labour relations, banking, delimitation of territorial waters and extradition of criminals.

In parallel, the Constitution also stated in Article 116 that: ‘the Emirates shall exercise all powers not assigned to the federation by this Constitution’. This was reaffirmed in Article 122, which stated that ‘the Emirates shall have jurisdiction in all matters not assigned to the exclusive jurisdiction of the federation, in accordance with the provision of the preceding two Articles’.

The new federal system of government included a Supreme Council, a Cabinet or Council of Ministers, a parliamentary body, the Federal National Council and an independent judiciary, at the peak of which is the Federal Supreme Court.

Supreme Council of the Federation

In a spirit of consensus and collaboration, the rulers of the seven emirates agreed during the process of federation that each of them would be a member of a Supreme Council, the top policy-making body in the new state. They agreed also that they would elect a president and a vice president from amongst their number, to serve for a five year term of office. The Ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, was elected as the first President, a post to which he has been re-elected at successive five yearly intervals, while the Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, was elected as first Vice President, a post he continued to hold until his death in 1990, at which point his eldest son and heir, Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum, was elected to succeed him.

Federal National Council

The Federal National Council (FNC) has 40 members drawn from the emirates on the basis of their population, with eight for each of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, six each for Sharjah and Ras al-Khaimah, and four each for Fujairah, Umm al-Qaiwain and Ajman. Presided over by a Speaker, or either of two Deputy Speakers, elected from amongst their number, the FNC is responsible under the Constitution for examining, and, if it wishes, amending, all proposed federal legislation, and is empowered to summon and to question any Federal Minister regarding Ministry performance. One of the main duties of the FNC is to discuss the annual budget. Specialized sub-committees and a Research and Studies Unit have been formed to assist FNC members to cope with the increasing demands of modern government.

Federal judiciary

The federal judiciary, whose independence is guaranteed under the Constitution, includes the Federal Supreme Court and Courts of First Instance. The Federal Supreme Court consists of five judges appointed by the Supreme Council of Rulers. The judges decide on the constitutionality of federal laws and arbitrate on intra-emirate disputes and disputes between the federal government and the emirates.

Local government

Parallel to, and, on occasion, interlocking with, the federal institutions, each of the seven emirates also has its own local government. Although all have expanded significantly as a result of the country's growth over the last 27 years, these differ in size and complexity from emirate to emirate, depending on a variety of factors such as population, area, and degree of development.

Traditional government

Traditionally, the ruler of an emirate, the sheikh, was the leader of the most powerful, though not necessarily the most populous, tribe, while each individual tribe, and often its various sub-sections, also generally had a chief or sheikh. Such rulers and chiefs maintained their authority only insofar as they were able to retain the loyalty and support of their people, in essence a form of direct democracy, though without the paraphernalia of western forms of suffrage. Part of that democracy was the unwritten but strong principle that the people should have free access to their sheikh, and that he should hold a frequent and open majlis, or council, in which his fellow tribesmen could voice their opinions.