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The lobbyists are here and it's time we knew why

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The act of lobbying, either officially or behind the scenes, is prevalent across the world. It is most often associated with politics in the United States and negatively so. In fact, lobbying dates back to just after the American War of Independence when William Hull, a war veteran, was hired by those who fought alongside him to lobby those in Philadelphia, then the US capital, to compensate them for their service. The rest, of course, is history.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is no stranger to lobbying firms. It hosts various companies, some of them US-based, who provide global services to UAE-based firms and the various governments. The UAE also hosts business associations and Canadian, US, Indian and British groups, whose executives meet for educational and informative sessions as well as to celebrate occasions such as national holidays. Other lobbying organisations press for oil rights and contracts for their clients.

An interesting development occurred when the former UK business secretary Lord Mandelson visited the UAE and addressed a group of British businessmen and women in the UAE earlier this year. Lord Mandelson urged the UAE to settle an estimated £400 million in unpaid fees to British firms from companies in the UAE.

He also reportedly said that the UK government was "firmly behind UK business in the country" and that he "did not mind raising issues" on their behalf to the UAE government. Foreign newswires quoted the mixed response to the UK business secretary's statement, with one member saying: "There's nothing the UK can preach to Dubai."

The incident did mark how lobbying can take on another dimension here in the UAE, with some business groups calling upon their governments to press the UAE to further their members' interests.

The Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ADCCI) elections last year were amongst the clearest examples of lobbying's importance in the UAE. The capital's chamber of commerce is an important body, considering that Abu Dhabi's GDP is more than $150 billion. ADCCI's stated mission is to be the "private sector representative working to advocate policies, connect businesses and expand member opportunities." Sound familiar?

Initially three coalitions were formed to field candidates for the organisation's 21-member governing body. In only the second time in the ADCCI's 40-year history, its 71,000 members from Abu Dhabi and Al Ain were able to vote and decide on their representatives. Sixty-seven Emiratis competed for 13 seats and a dozen expatriates were competing for two expat seats. The government of Abu Dhabi would appoint the remaining six to the board.

The elections were intense and hotly contested, with a group known as Abu Dhabi First taking out full-page advertisements, launching a website and a radio campaign to promote their candidates. Abu Dhabi First could be seen as the first official commercial coalition to promote common goals, effectively making it the first local business-lobbying group.

Among other parts of its platform, it enticed voters by promising to slash membership fees by 50 per cent for small businesses in Abu Dhabi. The results were remarkable; Abu Dhabi First won all 15-membership seats including the two expatriate allocations.

With close to 5,000 votes, the female Emirati candidate on its slate, Fatima Al Jaber, garnered more votes than any other Emirati on the way to becoming the first woman to be elected to the ADCCI board.

There are other registered lobbying groups in the UAE whose goals are non-commercial, including environmental groups and human rights associations. Not all lobbying is negative. Still, it is an industry that is growing in the UAE and is largely unknown and completely unregulated.

So, should the UAE look into establishing a law to govern these lobbying associations? The United States first federal lobbying regulation, known as the Lobbying Act of 1946, sought to make sure that the process was transparent and there was full disclosure of financial payments. It has been amended several times since.

In December 2006, the first FNC partial elections were held, and the body's tenure was extended for two years despite its failure to meet the demands of UAE citizens, raising questions regarding its ability to introduce and debate reforms in the UAE. The tenure extension expires in 2010, though the government has yet to announce new election dates.

It may be prudent to announce electoral reforms along with an election date and to include legislation to make any lobbying activity official. The success of Abu Dhabi First will not go unnoticed by many in the business community that want to silence any debate, for instance, on laws that protect monopolies.

Unofficial and community lobbying manifest themselves in various forms, including an online petition in 2007 to save Jumeirah's public beach, which resulted in the scrapping of a development. But whether we like it or not, lobbyists are about to become more prevalent in the UAE, and not all of them are out to save a beach.

*This article first appeared in The National on Sunday 4th July 2010