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16 August 2011

May you live in interesting times

By Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi , Special to Gulf News
“May you live in interesting times" goes a Chinese saying that usually has negative connotations. The emerging UAE political scene is nothing if not interesting, though.
I will attempt to shed some light on this emerging political scene by highlighting a number of "champions" who have both expressed their willingness to run as candidates for the upcoming Federal National Council elections and have a record of association with a specific cause that may be translated into active support for them in the parliament. I have identified four possible blocs: religionist, ultra-nationalist, business and liberal.
On the Islamic leaning side of this square is Sami Gargash, the CEO of the Mohammad Bin Rashid Housing Establishment since March 2009. A lecturer whose interests span Islamic art, designing as well as crafting jewelry, Gargash previously was Deputy Director General of the Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities Department in Dubai. Since its inception, the four-year-old MRHE as it is known has handed over 1,640 housing units to UAE nationals at a cost of hundreds of millions of dirhams and has further expanded its programme and services under Gargash's stewardship.
One of the latest additions to the UAE political front is also its most vocal. Since the issue of the five so-called reform activists surfaced a few months ago, this particular group whose existence was not taken into consideration earlier has been making its voice heard, announcing their disapproval of those who have criticised UAE symbols including its leadership and style of governance. Sometimes referred to as the ultra-nationalists, conservatives or even the UAE's very own Tea Party, this social media savvy group has only grown in prominence over the past few months, possibly marking their emergence as one of the most significant political developments in the UAE this year.
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Amongst its champions is Dherar Belhoul whose previous experience as director of Heritage Projects at the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority makes him an authority on various aspects of UAE culture and tradition. During Queen Elizabeth II's recent visit to the UAE, Belhoul, who also maintains a popular Arabic blog, was on hand to present to the visiting monarch the cultural developments in the country. Belhoul, who served as Student Council president at Dubai Men's College, currently works as Events Manager at the Dubai Media Office in addition to hosting a popular Arabic radio talk show.
The influential business community will look towards the likes of Nasser Al Shaikh, the scion of a prominent business family, who has also become a social media star in the UAE. Al Shaikh's balanced Tweets and Facebook updates have garnered him wide support and he may possibly be amongst the only FNC candidates with his own Wikipedia page. Al Shaikh's colourful career in the private and public sectors saw him take leadership positions in various listed firms in the UAE including Deyaar, Amlak Finance and Dubai Islamic Bank, amongst many others, in addition to previously serving as Director General of Dubai Government's Department of Finance.
As in other societies the liberal movement usually is an orphan child. Community champions in the Gulf are loath to claim the liberal mantelpiece due to the negative connotation of secularism, which loosely translates in some people's minds as an equivalent to atheism. It is therefore likely that the publicity shy liberal movement of the UAE will, as in the case in Kuwait, attempt to build bridges with the above causes' champions according to their necessities. (An interesting story relayed by the late Kuwaiti intellectual and writer Dr Ahmad Al Baghdadi tells of how Kuwait's liberals lobbied the Members of Parliament associated with the business community there to vote down a draft law to segregate schools because it would cost them dearly).
Furthermore, the "royal card" has notably been taken out of the equation. No ruling family members have been included in the electoral pool, but these individuals may indirectly influence the UAE parliament through backing of candidates such as those mentioned above.
All the above aspects of political life are indigenous to the UAE and will naturally produce sympathisers and champions. In the grand scheme of things it is always better to have those championing such causes in the public light, working hand in hand with the government rather than in obscurity. An additional aspect that would determine the influence of these possible political blocs is the federal government "wild card" that allows it to directly appoint half the members of parliament.
The UAE political scene is being formed almost from scratch, as you read these very lines. Not many countries can lay such a claim. The challenge would be to maintain a healthy balance between all elements of the political sphere in the UAE so that no side is allowed to negate the other. It is also likely that these possible blocs or alliances that are formed in these upcoming elections will shape in one way or another the political landscape of the UAE for decades to come.
One thing is for certain, these times are nothing if not interesting.
Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi is a non-resident fellow at the Dubai School of Government. This article was originally published in the Gulf News. It can be accessed here.
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