DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Hand-selected voters went to the polls on Saturday to pick members of an government advisory panel in this oil-rich Gulf country's first-ever elections.
About 60 percent of the 1,677 citizens chosen to vote in the capital, Abu Dhabi, casted ballots — picking a woman and three men for the Federal National Council, the advisory panel which is seen as an eventual precursor to a national parliament, the state-run news agency, WAM, reported.
Eighty percent of the 418 people picked by government also voted in the eastern emirate of Fujeirah — choosing four men for the FNC, WAM said.
The small number of voters were the first Emirati citizens to cast ballots since the United Arab Emirates' independence in 1971. Voters in Dubai and the other four emirates that make up the federal state will visit polls Monday and Wednesday.
Marking the independence anniversary of this tiny Gulf state in December 2005, the president of the United Arab Emirates Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan said that political reforms will eventually lead to the holding of the country's first ever general elections and the creation of a parliament.
The government hedged against the likelihood of revolutionary change by hand-picking the 6,700 people allowed to vote Saturday, Monday and Wednesday. It also has balanced the 20 elected members of the FNC, which is the closest body the country has to a parliament, with 20 appointed members. The council itself has no formal power and acts only as a panel whose advice can be discarded.
Some newspapers heralded Saturday's elections, calling it a historic moment in the country' history.
"It is the first and cautious step on a long road to democracy that the country now feels able to introduce into society," declared the editorial of the Gulf News daily.
"It's a day that will remain engraved in the nation's memory," an editorial in the newspaper Al-Bayan read.
The elections lay down a path of reform to increase political participation in a country that has been undergoing an economic boom and has long been one of the most socially liberal Gulf states — but also the least developed politically. The Emirates' approximate 800,000 citizens have yet to experience any form of political elections. UAE also has about 3.7 million foreign resident workers.
The FNC is expected to be the precursor for a parliament that is years away, but the country currently has no elections law, no guidelines for formation of political parties and no constitutional provision for a parliament.
The entire Middle East has been under U.S. pressure to embark on democratic reforms, and Gulf nations have been taking gradual steps, with the Emirates lagging behind.
Conservative Saudi Arabia earlier last year held its first polls for city councils. While women were barred from participating in those contests, they were allowed to vote and run in chamber of commerce elections.
A woman was elected to parliament in nearby Bahrain last month, the first ever in any Gulf Arab state. Kuwait allowed women to vote and run for office for the first time in elections held in June. No female candidates won, but a woman was given a Cabinet post. Qatar and Oman have also held low-level elections.
The Gulf countries are run by tribal families.