by Anna Zacharias
Mohammed Al Tamimi had two choices when he wanted to vote in the UAE national elections in 2015 – he could take a 45-minute flight to Abu Dhabi, or board a ferry to Jebel Dhanna and drive to the nearest polling station.The first option involved paying for a costly airline ticket while the alternative was a 10-hour round trip. Neither seemed that appealing. This year, however, voting in the Federal National Council elections will take Mr Al Tamimi only minutes. For the first time, he will be able to vote in his home town on Dalma Island, about 60 kilometres off the coast of Abu Dhabi.
Officials are hoping new polling stations in more remote communities around the Emirates will increase voter turnout in the Federal National Council elections on October 5. “It’s the first time,” said Mr Al Tamimi, 45. “Before, we went to Abu Dhabi or Madinat Zayed and sometimes it was difficult due to bad weather, waves or high winds.”
About one in three eligible voters cast their ballots in the FNC elections four years ago. This year, three new polling stations have been added to the list, making 39 centres in cities including Hatta in Dubai, Mleiha and Al Dhaid in Sharjah, Falaj Al Mualla in Umm Al Quwain and Masfoot, a town in the interior of Ajman. “We’re trying to reach every geographical area in the UAE as much as we can,” said Tariq Lootah, Undersecretary at the Ministry of State for Federal National Council Affairs. “We try to reach all voters and provide every service to make it easy for them to vote.” In the 2011 elections, entire villages were found not to have voted. “I didn’t vote last time,” said Noura Al Qaidi, a resident of Munai, a town 110km south of Ras Al Khaimah city. “Munai was very far from Ras Al Khaimah.”
Rural communities often stand to gain the most from council representation and are central to debates on crucial topics such as fishing rights, agricultural policies and air pollution from quarrying. Residents outside capital cities are proportionally more reliant on government health care, public schooling and other crucial services. On election day in 2011, extended families from Ras Al Khaimah’s north coast villages travelled to the polling station in the city centre together and picnicked outside. They shared coffee and their political views with anyone who would listen. But southern voters in the emirate in that year, as well as in 2015, did not cast a ballot. Many lived at least two hours from the polling centre. Even today, remote voters still miss a critical aspect of Emirati voter engagement: the majlis circuit.
Campaigning in the UAE usually takes place at majlis in people’s homes rather than public venues. Rare is the candidate who ventures to far-flung corners of the country. “Nobody came,” said Ms Al Qaidi, referring to the three previous elections. “Nobody from outside Munai ever came to our town.” Today, however, access to polling centres is far easier. In Abu Dhabi, a new coastal motorway has cut the drive to the capital from Al Dhafra cities by hours. In 2011, it took residents from the border town of Sila two to three hours to drive to their nearest polling station. That year, Madinat Zayed was the sole polling station in Al Dhafra, an area three and a half times the size of Lebanon. Voter turnout was 21 per cent in the emirate of Abu Dhabi. In 2015, officials organised a polling station at Sila’s community wedding hall. Turnout improved.
And over recent years, the government has steadily taken steps to increase the number of citizens eligible to vote. This year, just under a quarter of the Emirati population is able to vote, a 50 per cent increase from the 224,000 voters eligible in 2015. This translates into prospective candidates having a much stronger interest in voters living in remote communities. “I think if one person runs on Dalma Island, every single person will vote for him,” said Mr Al Tamimi, one of the island’s 10,000 residents. “But, you know, the total number of people on Dalma Island is not so big.”