DUBAI The United Arab Emirates has tripled the number of voters handpicked by its rulers to take part in this year's expected election, in a cautious step towards more political reform in the Gulf Arab state.
The expansion of the voting base for a top advisory body comes as anti-government protests flare up in nearby Bahrain and Yemen and other parts of the Arab world.
The Federal National Council (FNC), a quasi-parliamentary body of 40 members, had its first election in 2006 when about 6,500 people, less than one percent of the UAE population, elected half of its members. The rest were appointed.
"These decisions come to fulfil the programme of Sheikh Khalifa on revamping the role of FNC in the backdrop of successful first elections in 2006," state news agency WAM reported.
The body is controlled by the government and its agenda has to be approved by the cabinet. No poll date for the council, which discusses laws affecting citizens and the economy, has been scheduled, but former council members have said that it would likely be held before October.
Former members have long called for speedier reform and current members have become increasingly vocal in FNC sessions.
"The experiment has matured and we must raise the ceiling," said Sultan Saqr al-Suweidi, a former elected representative from Dubai. "We hope, through gradual transition and the development of the way the (FNC) works, there will be more powers so that we can deem this council one that can legislate and monitor."
As the world's third largest oil exporter, the UAE has been able to keep its 800,000 citizens in relative comfort in exchange for political submission.
Suweidi is one of several former FNC members who say they will not run in future elections as long as the assembly lacked parliamentary powers such as having binding decisions and the ability to hold officials accountable.
The rest of the council's members are appointed by the rulers of the seven emirates that make up the UAE federation.
In 2005, UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan decided to select half of the council's members by indirect polls, saying this was part of "gradual, organised" reforms.
Analysts say it will take years for the UAE to upgrade participation to the level of nearby Kuwait whose directly elected parliament is often at odds with the government.
UAE officials are quick to assert that taking too many steps at a time could jeopardise their country's economic development.
(Editing by Jason Benham/Maria Golovnina)