Since the passing of Sheikh Zayed in 2004 there have been many attempts to unify the young people of this country under an icon that represents all Emiratis. One thing is for certain: Sheikh Zayed’s legacy requires a collective effort to fill the vacuum created by his departure.
I have written on various occasions about the looming challenges that affect national identity in the UAE. There is, however, one entity in the country that could catapult Emirati nationalism to the forefront of public debate, if only it were more effective.
At first I hesitated to write this article since I admit that I have never been to a session of the Federal National Council. But in fact, that is precisely the reason why I decided to write it. The FNC should not be an organisation that you can believe exists only if you visit and see it for yourself, although sadly these are the sentiments that many UAE nationals have.
What has the FNC done for us lately, and does it have any real powers? At the outset, let me say that it would unfair to condemn the FNC as a failure. Its very creation in 1972, though an incomplete effort, was a major step in unifying the country. But rather than simply laying blame, we should start with constructive criticism that will hopefully make the FNC more visible – and not just to those who visit it once or twice a week, but to the average Emirati citizen and UAE resident.
First, the 40-member FNC rarely has any official presence at any of the various conferences that take place, either in the UAE or abroad, that discuss UAE culture, economics or academic affairs. Additionally, most of the FNC members have full-time jobs, and no matter how competent they are, they cannot dedicate sufficient time to study the various needs of one of the fastest emerging economies in the Middle East.
For instance, a draft law on establishing a National Council for Tourism and Antiquities was forwarded to the FNC in April 2007 by the UAE Cabinet, but two and a half years later we have yet to hear from them about it. As a result, the UAE, one of the top tourism destinations in the Middle East, is not a member of the World Tourism Organisation. This is a prime example of why having members who have full-time jobs may hinder rather than assist progress in the UAE.
Also, how can a country with a professional football league and an international team of full-time professional players have part-time members of a body that discusses not just UAE sports, but also commerce, culture, national identity, security and finance? And what sort of message does that send to our young people?
Furthermore, the FNC has failed to engage Emiratis from a young age, something it could achieve by sending representatives to schools and universities to explain to students what FNC members’ responsibilities are, and how they go about fulfilling them.
Frankly, the only time I felt the FNC’s existence as a UAE citizen was in my capacity as a journalist, when members debated a new media law that promised severe punishment for institutions and individuals in cases of transgression. Since the UAE is already home to many media outlets, and international organisations such as CNN are in the process of setting up, shouldn’t we be starting a conversation with the media first? Instead of inviting the press to its home and to hear a debate on the importance of publishing correct information about the country, the FNC’s move may have alienated much of the media.
As part of its mandate the FNC examines the national budget. Theoretically this is supposed to be submitted two months in advance, and under the premiership of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid this was in fact achieved before the deadline last year. The FNC, also theoretically, has the power to discuss and propose amendments to the budget or proposed legislation if it deems this necessary. Has it ever done so? Yes, in 2002, it actually amended Federal law No 37 of 1992 that dealt with trademarks; but not much since.
The FNC can also discuss and possibly delay a law that it doesn’t like, but it cannot veto it. It reminds me of a newborn child that tries its best to bite, but its bite is soft. And like a child it can scream and cry and delay a parent, but it cannot stop the parents from doing what they want to do.
Some may argue that this is not such bad thing; after all, the UAE under its current leaders has achieved more in the past four decades than most countries have. Should we really wish for a parliament, as in Kuwait, that not only has the power to stop projects and progress indefinitely, but has exercised this power? In this case we must be careful what we wish for, we might actually get it.
* This article first appeared in The National on Sunday 25th October 2009