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Government, Politics and Legal Systems for Expats in the United Arab Emirates

Author: Jim Newham
Submitted: March 2014

Government and Politics

The United Arab Emirates is a federation of seven semi-independent states. Each emirate is ruled by an emir (the equivalent to prince or king), a position that is customarily hereditary. Together these seven emirs form the Supreme Council of the Union. This Council is the primary source of executive power in the UAE, and its members appoint the president, the vice-president and prime minister (currently the same person) and the cabinet.

The two richest and most populous emirates, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, dominate most areas of national life and politics is no exception. Though the Supreme Council can theoretically choose the president and vice-president from any of the seven emirates, only the emirs of Abu Dhabi and Dubai have ever occupied these positions. The two posts nominally last for five years, though they are de facto for life as no incumbent has ever been deselected.

The president is the head of state and heads the Supreme Council. The current president is Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The president arranges and chairs Council meetings and supervises the executive process at the national level.  

The prime minister is the head of government and chairs cabinet meetings, with whom he formulates executive policy. The vice president takes the place of the president when the latter cannot fulfil his duties. Both these positions are currently held by the emir of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum.

The unicameral legislature, the Federal National Council, consists of 40 members who consult with and advise the president and other Supreme Council members. The Emirates are almost completely unrepresentative. The election for the Federal National Council in 2006 was the first one to be held; there were 7,000 electors. This number was increased in the second Federal National Council election in 2011, in which 130,000 (male) Emiratis were allowed to vote. That is still less than two per cent of the population, but the UAE can now be described as slightly democratic.

Government in the UAE is on two levels: the federal level and the emirate level. The federal government sits in the national capital, Abu Dhabi. Its responsibilities include foreign affairs, defence and security, communications, education and health. All other areas of responsibility, including control of mineral wealth and revenues, are devolved to the individual emirates. Each emirate has its own executive and legislature.

Behind the veneer of Westernised, business-friendly tolerance, the UAE is a long way from being a free country. Political parties are generally disallowed, though some, such as the fanatical Hizb ut-Tahrir, are allowed to operate. Dissidents and protesters can expect short shrift from the Emirati authorities. Similarly, those who criticise the government online or elsewhere run the risk of being persecuted or tortured. Nonetheless, the UAE is one of the least corrupt countries in the Middle East, and one that has at least granted its populace a degree of democracy.


Legal Systems

Jurisprudence in the UAE is somewhat complicated. As stipulated by the constitution, the Emirati legal system is at heart based on Islamic Law or Sharia. However, there is a strong influence from Egyptian civil law, which was in turn influenced by the Napoleonic Code and Roman law. Furthermore, in the emirates of Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah, some aspects of Anglo-Indian common law exist.

The situation is complicated further by the fact that the Emirati legal system has two tiers: there is both national law and the laws of each emirate, which vary considerably in some respects. Though some emirates, such as Sharjah, are rather conservative, laws relating to business are in general more Western-friendly than those in the surrounding countries. This is especially the case for Dubai.

The highest court in the land is the Union Supreme Court, which deals with constitutional disputes between the federal government and emirate governments, or those between two emirates. The next highest courts, and the highest in each of the emirates, are the courts of the first instance. Below this are the Courts of Appeal, and, in all the emirates except Ras al-Khaimah, there is a third tier court, the Court of Cassation.



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