Government and Politics

Persian Gulf States Table of Contents

Executive and Legislative Branches

On July 18, 1971, rulers of six amirates from those known as the Trucial Coast states, ratified the provisional constitution of the UAE. A product of more than three years of discussion and debate among the rulers, the document was promulgated on December 2, 1971, on the UAE's independence. (Ras al Khaymah joined the union in February 1972.) Originally, the provisional constitution was to be replaced after five years with a permanent document, pending the resolution of issues standing in the way of full integration among the federation's amirates. These issues included individual amirates' contributions to the federal budget and defense integration. Reflecting a lack of progress in resolving these matters and a grudging preference for the status quo, however, the provisional constitution was extended for fiveyear periods in 1976, 1981, 1986, and 1991.

The provisional constitution of the UAE provides for the separation of powers into executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Additionally, it separates legislative and executive powers into federal and amirate jurisdictions. Certain powers are expressly reserved for the central government, including foreign policy, defense, security, immigration, and communications. The individual amirates exercise residual powers.

The separation of powers remained nominal in 1993. The Supreme Council of the Union (SCU), also seen as the Federal Supreme Council, functions as the highest federal authority in executive and legislative capacities. Narrowly, the executive branch consists of the SCU, the Council of Ministers (the cabinet), and the presidency. The SCU consists of the rulers of the seven amirates; it elects from among its members a chairman and a vice chairman, who serve for a term of five years. Article 150 of the provisional constitution defines the powers of the SCU as formulation of general policy; legislation on all matters of state; ratification of federal laws and decrees, including those relating to the annual budget and fiscal matters; ratification of international treaties and agreements; and assent to the appointment of the prime minister and Supreme Court of the Union judges.

The rulers make decisions by a simple majority vote, except on substantive issues. Substantive issues require a two-thirds majority (five of seven rulers), including the votes of both Abu Dhabi and Dubayy. The SCU carries out its work through a secretariat and whatever ad hoc committees it chooses to appoint.

The president serves as chairman of the SCU, head of state, and commander of the Union Defense Force (UDF). The president convenes the SCU and appoints the prime minister, the two deputy prime ministers, the cabinet ministers, and other senior civil and military officials. He has the power to proclaim martial law and to carry out a variety of functions usually associated with the chief executive.

The Council of Ministers administers federal affairs. In 1992 there were twenty-five ministers, including the prime minister and deputy prime minister. UAE citizenship is a requirement for appointment as a minister. All ministers are individually and collectively answerable to the president and the SCU. In addition to its executive duties, the Council of Ministers is responsible for drafting bills for formal enactment.

Under the provisional constitution, the Federal National Council (FNC) is the principal legislative authority, but its actual role in the governmental process is limited to consultation. Its forty members are appointed for two-year terms by the respective amirate rulers, in accordance with a constitutionally fixed quota that allots proportionately more members to the wealthiest and most populous amirates. Thus, Abu Dhabi and Dubayy each appoint eight members to the FNC; Ras al Khaymah and Sharjah each appoint six members; and Ajman, Al Fujayrah, and Umm al Qaywayn each appoint four members. Members of the FNC must be citizens of the amirates they represent, twenty-one years of age or older, and literate. They may not hold any other public office.

The FNC meets in regular session for a minimum of six months, beginning in November. The UAE president may call a special session if necessary. The president opens the regular session with a speech on the state of the union. The FNC can reply to the state of the union address in the form of "observations and wishes," but the reply has no legal effect. The FNC also makes recommendations on legislative matters to the Council of Ministers, the president, and the SCU. The FNC can discuss any government bills drafted by the Council of Ministers; it can agree with, amend, or reject such bills, but it cannot veto them.

The laws of the UAE are divided into two main categories: union laws and decrees. A bill drafted by the Council of Ministers for nonbinding deliberation by the FNC and then submitted to the president for his assent and the SCU for ratification becomes a union law when promulgated by the president. Decrees are issued jointly by the president and the Council of Ministers between sessions of the SCU; a decree must be confirmed by the SCU to remain valid.

The Judiciary

Article 94 of the provisional constitution guarantees the independence of the judicial branch under the Supreme Court of the Union. This body consists of a president and up to five judges appointed by the UAE president, following approval by the SCU. The Supreme Court is vested with the power of judicial review and original jurisdiction over federal-amirate and interamirate disputes. It also is empowered to try cases of official misconduct involving cabinet and other senior federal officials.

The provisional constitution also provides for the establishment of union courts of first instance to adjudicate civil, commercial, criminal, and administrative cases. Judgments of these courts can be appealed to the Supreme Court. Local courts in each of the seven amirates have jurisdiction over matters that the provisional constitution does not specifically reserve to the union courts.

The provisional constitution designates the sharia (Islamic law) as the basis of all legislation. Three of the four legal schools of Sunni Islam have adherents in the UAE. Most citizens follow the Maliki legal school, but a minority follow the Hanbali and Shafii schools. The Twelver Imam legal school of Shia Muslims also has adherents in the federation.

Ruling Families

In 1993 the most important political figures in the UAE were the senior members of the ruling families of the individual amirates--the Al Nuhayyan family of Abu Dhabi, the Al Nuaimi of Ajman, the Al Sharqi of Al Fujayrah, the Al Maktum of Dubayy, the Al Qasimi of Ras al Khaymah and Sharjah, and the Al Mualla of Umm al Qaywayn. The most powerful amir is Shaykh Zayid ibn Sultan Al Nuhayyan (b. ca. 1920), the ruler of Abu Dhabi and the president of the UAE (reelected to a five-year term in 1991). Shaykh Zayid ibn Sultan has ruled Abu Dhabi since 1966, when his older brother, Shaykh Shakhbut Al Nuhayyan (r. 1928-66), was deposed by the British.

The Al Nuhayyan originally were beduin of the Bani Yas tribe and were based in the Al Liwa Oasis. An ancestor of the current ruler migrated to the island of Abu Dhabi in the late 1770s and established a commercial port there. Prior to 1966, Abu Dhabi remained a small town and residence site of the ruler, but it had not attracted most Al Nuhayyan shaykhs, who preferred to live in the interior oases. Even Shaykh Zayid ibn Sultan favored the beduin lifestyle as a young man, and for several years under his brother's rule he was governor of Al Ayn in the Al Buraymi Oasis. Beginning in the late 1960s, the oil-boom-induced transformation of Abu Dhabi into a cosmopolitan city prompted politically ambitious Al Nuhayyan members to settle in the capital, where many of them obtained positions in the expanding amirate and federal bureaucracies.

Shaykh Zayid ibn Sultan designated his son, Shaykh Khalifa ibn Zayid Al Nuhayyan (b. 1949), as crown prince. Khalifa ibn Zayid acquired progressively more responsibilities as he matured. In 1992 he served as president of Abu Dhabi's Executive Council (the amirate equivalent of the Council of Ministers) and as head of the Department of Social Services. In addition, he was deputy commander in chief of the federal Union Defense Force. Shaykh Zayid ibn Sultan had more than forty-five other children, although most of them were not involved actively in politics; one son was a colonel in the Union Defense Force air force. Several of Shaykh Zayid ibn Sultan's cousins were prominent in government, especially the sons of his cousin Muhammad ibn Khalifa Al Nuhayyan: Tahnun ibn Muhammad Al Nuhayyan was head of ADNOC; Hamdan ibn Muhammad Al Nuhayyan was deputy prime minister; and Sarur ibn Muhammad Al Nuhayyan was chief of the ruler's diwan (court).

Until his death on October 7, 1990, Shaykh Rashid ibn Said Al Maktum (b. 1912), as ruler of Dubayy and vice president and prime minister of the UAE, was the second most powerful amir. His eldest son, Shaykh Maktum ibn Rashid Al Maktum, succeeded him in all his offices. The Al Maktum are a branch of the same Bani Yas tribe that includes the Al Nuhayyan. The Al Maktum emigrated from Abu Dhabi to Dubayy's creek in the 1830s and established there the port that eventually became Dubayy. The late Shaykh Rashid ibn Said succeeded to the rule of Dubayy in 1958 following the death of his father, Shaykh Said ibn Maktum Al Maktum (r. 1912- 58). During the 1960s and 1970s, Shaykh Rashid ibn Said presided over the transformation of Dubayy into a wealthy oil amirate. Since the mid-1980s, however, his sons effectively have ruled the amirate because of Rashid ibn Said's serious and chronic illnesses.

Before taking over his father's offices, Shaykh Maktum ibn Rashid (b. 1941) was crown prince and had several other governmental responsibilities. Shaykh Maktum ibn Rashid's brother, Muhammad ibn Rashid Al Maktum, is UAE minister of defense and head of Dubayy's armed forces. Two other brothers also hold important positions in the Dubayy or federal administrations. In addition, several of Shaykh Rashid ibn Said's nephews and cousins are politically prominent.

Two branches of the Al Qasimi tribe rule Sharjah and Ras al Khaymah. The Al Qasimi, based at Ras al Khaymah, emerged as a major maritime power during the eighteenth century; the Al Qasimi control of trade in the Persian Gulf area led to conflict with Oman and eventually with Britain, which was consolidating its colonial empire in India. Following several naval battles, the British finally defeated the Al Qasimi in 1819, burning their ships and the town of Ras al Khaymah. Because of this history, the Al Qasimi inherited a historical hostility toward the British.

The Al Qasimi family of Sharjah is the larger of the two ruling houses. Shaykh Sultan ibn Muhammad Al Qasimi (b. 1942) of Sharjah became ruler in 1972, following the assassination of his brother, Shaykh Khalid ibn Muhammad Al Qasimi (r. 1965-72), killed in an unsuccessful coup to restore his cousin, Shaykh Saqr ibn Sultan Al Qasimi (r. 1951-65), whom the British had deposed. Shaykh Sultan ibn Muhammad has a reputation for being relatively progressive and for being an enthusiastic supporter of strengthening the powers of the federal government.

The ruler also has a reputation for initiating extravagant construction projects for the amirate. Since assuming power, Shaykh Sultan ibn Muhammad had amassed a debt estimated in 1987 at US$920 million, creating discontent among some members of the royal family and precipitating a coup attempt in June 1987. While Shaykh Sultan ibn Muhammad was out of the amirate, his elder brother, Shaykh Abd al Aziz Al Qasimi, issued a statement through Sharjah's news agency that Shaykh Sultan ibn Muhammad had abdicated because he had mismanaged the amirate's economy. Despite initial Abu Dhabi support for the pretender, the coup failed when Dubayy called a meeting of the SCU. Through mediation it was decided to return Shaykh Sultan ibn Muhammad to power, but to give Shaykh Abd al Aziz a seat on the SCU and the title of crown prince. Somewhat chastened, Shaykh Sultan ibn Muhammad initiated administrative and financial reforms, but he had the last word when, in February 1990, he removed his brother from the post of crown prince, revoked his brother's right to succeed him, and exiled him.

The Al Qasimi family of Ras al Khaymah is smaller than the branch in Sharjah. Shaykh Saqr ibn Muhammad Al Qasimi (b. 1920) has ruled the amirate since 1948. As do his cousins in Sharjah, he has acquired a reputation for being sympathetic to Arab nationalist issues. He is a contemporary of the former ruler of Sharjah, Shaykh Saqr ibn Sultan, and, like him, tends to be suspicious of the British. In 1971 he refused to accept Britain's compromise for resolving Iran's claims to Tunb al Kubra (Greater Tumb) and Tunb as Sughra (Lesser Tumb), two tiny islands in the Persian Gulf. Shaykh Saqr ibn Sultan has designated his son, Khalid ibn Saqr Al Qasimi, as crown prince; Khalid ibn Saqr was educated in the United States.

The rulers of the other three amirates have limited influence within the UAE. Ajman, Al Fujayrah, and Umm al Qaywayn are relatively small, poor, and dependent on their wealthier neighbors for development grants. Shaykh Humayd ibn Rashid Al Nuaimi has ruled Ajman since 1981. Shaykh Rashid ibn Ahmad Al Mualla has ruled Umm al Qaywayn since 1981 as well. In Al Fujayrah, where a majority of the population claims membership in the dominant Al Sharqi tribe, Shaykh Hamad ibn Muhammad Al Sharqi has ruled since 1974.

For more recent information about the government, see Facts about United Arab Emirates.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress