In a dark auditorium, rows of men in traditional white robes and women swathed in black watch silently as computer-animated characters take their turn at electronic voting machines in a film aimed at educating them on how to vote.
On 24 September they will cast their votes for half of the United Arab Emirates’ Federal National Council (FNC), a quasi-parliamentary body designed to serve as a link between the country’s rulers and its people to build democratic institutions gradually in the Gulf Arab state.
But given that the 40-member council has no legislative authority, half its members are appointed, and only about 12 per cent of citizens – themselves handpicked by the UAE’s rulers – can vote, critics question how much substance it has.
“It’s theatre,” said a former FNC member, who spoke on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the issue. “It looks good, but it doesn’t mean there’s anything underneath.”
The election awareness road show has been to all seven emirates, from Umm Al-Quwain, with its low biscuit-coloured buildings, to the glinting skyscrapers of business hub Dubai, to “strengthen electoral culture”.
Officials have rolled out an election logo, set up a special website, printed explanatory brochures and even installed the Arab world’s first high-tech electronic voting machines to press on with a programme of gradual democratisation.
It is only the second election to be held in the UAE.
“We seek through the current election, a shift in the political environment of the UAE,” Minister of State for FNC Affairs Anwar Mohammed Gargash said in a statement last week.
At a session in the northern emirate of Umm Al-Quwain, several dozen voters filed into a conference hall where the election logo, a young boy running with the national flag billowing behind him, was emblazoned on booklets and posters.