how federalism works without democracy

A mural depicting founder and former president of the UAE Sheikh Zayed (left) and the former ruler of Dubai Sheikh Maktoum Keystone

Switzerland's core political belief that federalism and democracy are two sides of the same coin does not apply in all parts of the world.

This content was published on July 11, 2006 - 16:42

The United Arab Emirates is ruled by enlightened autocrats, without parties or elections. Nevertheless, the UAE works well as a federal state, just like Switzerland with its cantons.

The domestic politics and geopolitical role of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have more in common with Switzerland than might be expected from such an apparently different country squeezed between the desert and the sea.

The emirate of Dubai is recognised today as a wealthy commercial centre with global reach. What was once a financial centre of regional importance for the Gulf has now extended its services world wide – as Switzerland has. And both countries have become important cargo transit points and attract large numbers of tourists.

While Switzerland, like most western nations, relies on a strong foreign work force, the Emirates could not

survive if it did not import labour.

"At the moment there are people of 150 nationalities living in the Emirates, and in Dubai they account for more than 80% of the population," says Peter Harradine, President of the Swiss Business Councils and doyen of the Swiss residents in the UAE.


Living in a small country, the Emiratis constantly feel their identity under threat from their bigger neighbours – just as many Swiss do.

To the west of the UAE lies the giant of Saudi Arabia, whose economic might worries the Emiratis in much the same way as Germany

worries the Swiss.

To the northeast looms Iran. The immense weight of its culture could overshadow the Emirates, which possess next to no cultural monuments themselves, in much the same way that France, the "Grande Nation", overshadows Switzerland.

Furthermore, nearly half of the Emiratis are Shiites, which means treading with great care in dealing with their neighbours. A similar delicate confessional balance, between Catholics and Protestants, has left its mark on Swiss history.

Pakistanis, from the third large neighbour, work as labourers, shopkeepers and take on all manner of jobs, a role not unlike that once played by Italians in Switzerland.

Old photos in books on the history of the emirates show the emirs sitting in tents sipping coffee and smoking water pipes, as they search for political consensus through discussion.

"Consensus is an important aspect of politics in the Emirates," Peter Harradine agrees. "Furthermore, every citizen can lay his request personally before his sheikh or the emir. The people's right to grass-roots participation still exists, and woe betide any ruler who ignores this fact."

Grass roots

This system of government, which works as a kind of "grass-roots absolutism", recalls the procedures of grass-roots democracy in

Switzerland. The tent in the desert as the place to achieve consensus has a symbolic parallel in the Swiss popular assembly, the Landsgemeinde.

That the seven emirates should be in a constant state of competition with each other over where the power lies, balancing competition and consensus, comparable to the relations between the 26 Swiss cantons, should come as no surprise.

"Abu Dhabi's role is like the one Bern once played: it is where the money comes from," says Harradine. Unlike Bern, however, Abu Dhabi is still the one which makes the decisions."

But the locomotive is Dubai. Dubai is

an expanding economic region, like the greater Zurich economic area and the Rhine region around Basel.

The emirate that was awarded the Islamic Prize for architecture, Sharjah, is beautiful, but feels a little sedate after the vibrancy of Dubai. Both rents and hemlines here are lower than in Dubai, and life is less hectic.

Local rivalry

As in Switzerland, there is local rivalry. The maps in Dubai's tourist brochures leave blank anything that belongs to neighbouring Sharjah, and vice versa. And yet the two international airports are situated right next to each other.

"The consistently high growth rate

of the country is only made possible by a regime of enlightened, educated autocrats, who take speedy decisions, but also allow their neighbours to live in their own way," says Harradine. "And this thanks to a very restrictive policy towards foreigners, which is carefully designed to meet the needs of the country."

swissinfo, Alexander Künzle in Dubai

Key facts

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has no political parties, and does not hold elections.
The seven emirates are ruled by hereditary succession. The president of the UAE is the Emir of Abu Dhabi.
The Emir of Dubai is traditionally the prime minister.
Since 1972 there has been Federal National Council with 40 members, nominated by the emirs of each emirate in proportion to its population.
This body reviews legislation. But only the Supreme Council of the seven emirate rulers can establish general policies and sanction federal laws.

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In brief

The Swiss federation consists of 26 cantons; the UAE consists of seven emirates: Abu Dhabi, Umm al-Qaiwain, Fujairah, Ra's al-Khaimah, Sharjah, Dubai und Ajman.

Each canton has its own parliament and its own government. Every emirate is a principality, ruled by its own emir.

Every canton has grass-roots democratic mechanisms, like initiatives and referendums. Every emir must take the grass roots into account.

The proportion of foreigners in Switzerland is around 20%; in the Emirates it is over 50%.

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