The popular demands for change and reform that are currently sweeping the Arab world appear to have reached the oil-rich United Arab Emirates, where a group of Emirati activists and intellectuals have sent a petition to the president of the seven-sheikhdom federation, urging him to allow direct elections and grant legislative powers to the parliament.
The petition, posted on the Internet and sent to President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan on Wednesday, reportedly called for "comprehensive reform of the Federal National Council (FNC), or parliament, including demands for free elections by all citizens."
The UAE parliament currently lacks both legislative and regulatory powers and serves only as an advisory body to the government. Petitioners are demanding a free election process that would provide all voters in the UAE with a chance to choose their parliament.
Media reports say more than a hundred people signed the petition, including journalists, academics, and activists, and that organizers are trying to rally more people to sign online.
But the environment for political activism in the UAE is far from ideal. All sorts of political parties and demonstrations are apparently banned in the sheikhdoms. Migrant workers complain of bad working conditions and activists say they're subject to harassment.
The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch warned in its World Report 2011 that human rights conditions in the UAE were doing downhill.
"The human rights situation in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) worsened in 2010, particularly for migrant workers....Other pressing human rights issues include torture, restrictions on freedoms of expression and association, and violations of women's rights," said the study. "Authorities continue to prevent peaceful demonstrations and to harass local human rights defenders."
The UAE, a federation that includes the glitzy business hub and boomtown Dubai and neighboring emirate Abu Dhabi, held indirect elections for the first time only five years go. Rulers of the various emirates appointed members of electoral colleges, who then voted in half of the 40-member body.
The voters, numbered at 6,500 people, represented less than 1% of the UAE's 800,000 citizens, according to the Reuters.
The rest of the members were appointed by President Al-Nahayan, also the ruler of Abu Dhabi.
The Al-Nahayan family reportedly controls the UAE's vast oil resources and occupies most government positions.
Elections are expected to be held in the UAE later this year.
--Alexandra Sandels in Beirut
Photo: A giant image of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai, left, and Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahayan, UAE president, plastered on a tower in Dubai in March 2011. Credit: Voice of American website.