March 9, 2011 / 10:11 AM / 6 years ago

Emiratis petition ruler for democratic elections

DUBAI (Reuters) - United Arab Emirates intellectuals petitioned their ruler on Wednesday for free and democratic elections, in a sign some Emiratis share growing Arab demands for a greater say in government.

But there was no indication of a move towards street protests in the seven-emirate federation, whose oil wealth and rapid development have boosted the standard of living and have buffered its government from widespread political dissent.

"The (petition) group calls for comprehensive reform of the Federal National Council (FNC), or parliament, including demands for free elections by all citizens in the method of universal suffrage," a statement from the petitioners said.

The 40-member FNC had its first election in 2006 when about 6,500 people, less than one percent of the 800,000 UAE citizens, elected half of its members. The rest were appointed.

Arab world protests have toppled leaders in Tunisia and Egypt and triggered revolt in Libya, and anti-government protests have now spread to several Gulf countries including Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia.

Some 160 people signed the petition, many of them academics and former members of the FNC, which acts as an advisory board to the government but lacks legislative or regulatory powers. Organisers are trying to gather more signatures online.

"The group demands reform of legislation governing the work of parliament to include legislative and monitoring authorities and calls for necessary constitutional amendments to ensure this," the petitioners said in the document, sent to President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan and his ruling council.

BETTER ELECTIONS

The UAE, the world's No. 3 oil exporter, recently tripled the number of electors eligible to vote for the FNC, but those still represent only a small portion of the population.

The pool of electors are selected by the rulers of the seven emirates, and can either run for office themselves or vote for others. The electors choose half the FNC's members while the remainder are directly appointed by the rulers.

"This is about people's right to participate in their society," said Ahmed Mansour, a blogger and activist who helped organise the petition, adding that recent reforms gave the FNC no extra powers and simply increased participation to around two percent of Emirati citizens.

"We thought unrest in the region would make them (UAE leaders) reconsider but instead they are moving ahead with this quasi-election mechanism they put together," he said.

Dubai's police chief said on Tuesday that the UAE was not considering new initiatives to reinforce security.

The UAE, as well as Qatar, the world's top liquefied natural gas exporter, are seen as the Gulf states least vulnerable to the political unrest.

UAE nationals represent around 15 percent of the total estimated 5 million in the country, which has one of the world's highest gross domestic products per capita at over 29,035.65 pounds.

Were there to be discontent in the UAE, analysts say it likely would appear in less developed emirates whose citizens have benefited least from the capital Abu Dhabi's vast oil wealth or trade and property-fuelled development in Dubai.

Earlier this month, state media said the UAE will invest 988.4 million pounds on infrastructure in its less developed regions.

Editing by Louise Ireland

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