The United Arab Emirates is a constitutional federation and consists of seven emirates: Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain and Fujairah.
The country is governed by a Federal Supreme Council made up of the seven emirs. Within each emirate, local governments are based on traditional patriarchal monarchies and ruled by sheikhs from royal families who long held the leadership position of tribal confederations. Each emirate has its own local government, the complexity of which varies according to the size and population of the emirates.
Every emirate has a voice in the civil administration of the country, in both the supreme council and the cabinet, though the status and power of the powerful emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai are apparent. Critical decisions, such as approving the federal budget and choosing the President and Prime Minister, are usually reached by consensus.
The UAE has no real elections, no political parties, and no democratic representative institutions. The country’s leadership and governmental bodies are either chosen through consultations between the local traditional leaders or appointed by these officials within the framework of the Constitution.
The executive authority is in the hands of the Federal Supreme Council (FSC), the President, Vice-President, Prime Minister, and cabinet.
The FSC is the highest constitutional authority and the top policy-making entity. Its members are the seven rulers of the emirates; the Council elects the President and Vice-President from amongst them. The FSC has both legislative and executive powers:
- establishes general policies
- ratifies federal laws and decrees
- approves the nomination of the Prime Minister by the President
- accepts the Prime Minister’s resignation, relieves him from his post upon the recommendation of the President
- meets four times a year.
The rulers of Abu Dhabi and Dubai have effective veto powers. If a ruler cannot attend Federal Supreme Council meetings he may delegate his crown prince to take his seat. Crown princes and deputy rulers attending meetings when their ruler is present have no formal role in the Council.
The head of state is the President, who serves a five-year term. The FSC elects or re-confirms a President already in office. The current President is Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who is also the ruler of Abu Dhabi. On 4 November 2004 he succeeded his father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan – the first UAE President, often referred to as ‘the father of the nation’ – who had died two days earlier. In 2009 Sheikh Khalifa’s five-year term as President was renewed. He is said to be a pro-Western modernizer.
The Vice-President also has a five-year term. He is selected by the President but needs to be approved by the FSC. The post is currently held by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who is also the ruler of Dubai. Sheikh Mohammed serves also as Prime Minister. The Prime Minister, who is appointed by the President, heads the Council of Ministers, or cabinet.
The relationship between the federal and local governments is laid down in the Constitution and allows some flexibility in the distribution of authority. Traditional government still plays an important part in the government of the UAE, with the institution of the majlis (council) maintaining a role in ensuring that the people have free access to their rulers. During the majlis the leader hears grievances, mediates disputes, and disperses largesse. In theory, anyone under the leader’s rule must be granted access to the majlis.
On the whole, leadership in each emirate falls to that emirate’s most politically prominent tribe, and the emir is selected by the notables of the ruling tribe from among their number. The choice is usually a son of the previous emir. Each tribe, however, has its own leader, or sheikh, and a certain degree of political pluralism, as seen in the institution of the majlis, is necessary to maintain the ruling family’s position.