The Federal National Council (FNC) and the Federal Supreme Council (FSC) amended the 1971 interim constitution of the United Arab Emirates, drafted with the establishment of the federation, to make it permanent in 1996.
Separation of Executive, Legislative, and Judicial Powers
The constitution describes five federal institutions. These are the Federal Supreme Council (FSC-executive), the President of the Union and the vice president, the Council of Ministers of the Union, the Federal National Council (FNC-legislative), and the Judiciary of the Union.
The Federal Supreme Council elected Abu Dhabi’s president Shaikh Zayed unanimously for the sixth time on December 2, 2001 as the President of the Union.
The Council of Ministers drafts decrees and various decisions. The prime minister and the members of the cabinet are responsible to the president and to the Federal Supreme Council (FSC), which is the highest executive body in the federation, made up of the rulers of the seven emirates.
The Federal Supreme Coucil is the highest constitutional authority in the UAE. It is also the highest legislative and executive body. It establishes general policies and sanctions federal legislation. The rulers of Abu Dhabi and Dubai have veto power. The FSC meets four times a year, usually informally.
The 1996 constitution governs the relationship between the federal government and the emirate governments by giving the central government specific powers and leaving an unspecified area of implicit powers to the emirates. Each emirate retains control over its own oil and mineral wealth and some aspects of internal security. The federal government asserts primacy in most matters of law and government.
Articles 120 and 121 of the constitution assign responsibility to the federal government in areas such as foreign affairs, security and defense, nationality and immigration issues, education, public health, currency, postal, telephone and other communications services, air traffic control and licensing of aircraft and a number of other topics specifically prescribed, including labor relations, banking, delimitation of territorial waters and extradition of criminals. Article 121 was amended in 2004 to allow for the devolution of legislative authority vested in the Union onto local federal organizations, specifically the newly formed Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC). The amendment sets a precedent for the expansion of the federal authority.
With respect to the Emirates, article 116 stipulates that “the Emirates shall exercise all powers not assigned to the Federation by this Constitution.” Article 122 further emphasizes that “the Emirates shall have jurisdiction in all matters not assigned to the exclusive jurisdiction of the Federation, in accordance with the provision of the preceding two Articles.” The constitution also enables the rulers of the emirates, however, to relinquish, if they wish, certain areas of authority prescribed as being the responsibility of individual emirates to the federal government. The decision to unify the Armed Forces in the mid-1970s is an example of this prerogative.
The 1971 constitution permitted each emirate to retain or to take up membership in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC), although none has done so. The only emirate to be a member in 1971, Abu Dhabi, relinquished its memberships in favor of the federation.
The relationship between the federal and the local levels of government continues to change and evolve. Smaller emirates have benefited from the federation in areas like education and tourism. At the same time, in other areas, such as the judiciary, there has been an evolving trend towards a further voluntary relinquishment of local authority to the federal institutions.
Traditional and modern forms of government coexist and supplement each other. Although political leaders in the emirates are not elected, citizens may express their concerns directly to their leaders via traditional mechanisms, such as the open majlis, or informal assembly.
The constitution prohibits torture or degrading treatment and prohibits arrest, search, detention, or imprisonment, and entry into homes without the owner's permission, except in accordance with the law. It provides for the independence of the judiciary, but its decisions are subject to review by the political leadership. The constitution also provides for freedom of speech and equality before the law with regard to race, nationality, religious beliefs, or social status.
The constitution vests the Court of Cassation with judicial authority over the constitutionality of legislation.
Constitutional Amendments and Procedures
According to Article 144 of the constitution, amendments to the constitution are drafted by the Federal Supreme Council, and must be approved by a two-thirds majority of the Federal National Council, after which the amendment is signed into law by the president.