Professor Abd al-Khaliq Abd Allah of the UAE University told the English-language daily Kaleej Times that when millions of Arabs in Palestine, Iraq and Saudi Arabia have gone to the polls, the UAE cannot continue to lag behind.

Khalifa Jumma al-Nabuda, who sits on the 40-strong FNC, which is appointed by the rulers of the seven emirates making up the UAE, said: "I strongly support the idea of having elected members in the Federal National Council."

Fellow member Muhammad bin Ali al-Nagbi told the same newspaper he would support elections as long as they were decided from within and were not imposed by external pressure.

Falling behind

"Our country is now the only member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) which has yet to catch up with the political opening up under way in the Arab world.

"Even countries we thought were incapable of political change, such as Saudi Arabia, are now ahead of us," said Atiq Daka, a professor of political science at the UAE University.

The GCC groups the UAE with Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

"How come that we encouraged Iraqis to take part in elections and hosted Iraqi elections on our soil while even officials of sports clubs in our country are appointed?"

Professor Atiq Daka,
UAE University

Bahrain and Kuwait have elected parliaments, while Oman has an elected advisory council.

And earlier this month, ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia kicked off unprecedented local polls in which half the members of 178 municipal councils will be elected across the kingdom. Women, however, have been excluded from the three-stage ballot.

"We are certainly ahead of other countries in the region at the economic and trade levels. But we should also lead the way on the political front," Daka said.

"How come that we encouraged Iraqis to take part in elections and hosted Iraqi elections on our soil while even officials of sports clubs in our country are appointed?" Daka asked.

The UAE was one of the 14 countries where Iraqi expatriates were able to take part in their country's elections last month through an out-of-country voting programme organised by the International Organisation for Migration.

"We need not just municipal and legislative elections, but also transparency in terms of freedom of expression and total independence of the judiciary," said Abd Allah Shamsi, also a political science professor.

"Political institutions must be given real powers ... if elections are not to be worthless," he said.

Such outspoken remarks are a novelty in the UAE, where there are no elections and no political parties - only the FNC set up in 1972.

Rulers of some of the emirates making up the federation have over the past few years raised the prospect of holding municipal polls but none have materialised.