Middle East Political Systems

Regime classification leads to two major categories (democratic and authoritarian) of political systems in the Middle East region. Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, and Iraq are among the countries considered democratic. There also exist republics and monarchies under the authoritarian forms of governments in the region. Authoritarian republics include Syria, Yemen, and Iran, while monarchies include Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. The current paper reviews the political systems of the United Arab Emirates, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the Republic of Iran.

United Arab Emirates

In an attempt to promote effective governance in the United Arab Emirates upon its establishment in 1971, the leaders of the seven emirates drew a provisional constitution that specified the powers distributed among various federal agencies (Bellin, 2005). Considering the fact that such distribution was performed among a number of federal structures, given powers had to be exercised by each emirate given that they already had individual governing institutions before the establishment of the federation in 1971. Based on the provisions of Articles 120 and 121 of the UAE Constitution, the federal authorities had a role in foreign affairs, defense, national security, education, immigration, and airspace among other areas (National Media Council, 2008). However, functions considered local remained under the jurisdiction of each emirate.

Closer examination of the UAE posits a picture where traditional and modern systems are in operation. According to Fawcett (2005), the approach has provided a strong foundation for the development of the federation. Currently, the federal system comprises the Federal Supreme Court, the Federal National Council (FNC), the Council of Ministers and the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Council (Fawcett, 2005). The presence of a number of separate entities is often expected to play a role in improving transparency.

Pratt (2007) observes that the Supreme Council comprises leaders from seven emirates. The rulers elect a president and deputy from its membership, and are allowed to serve for a five-year term. The body exercises both executive and legislative powers. The council ratifies federal laws, plans general policies, and is in charge of nomination and resignation of the prime minister approval. Similarly, the Council of Ministers derives its powers from the Constitution. The body which is headed by the Prime Minister exercises executive authority. The Prime Minister appoints the cabinet with the approval of the President.

As it was mentioned above, the federal judiciary derives its powers from the Constitution. It comprises the Courts of First Instance and the Federal Supreme Court. Five judges comprise the membership of the Federal Supreme Court. The Supreme Council appoints the five members of the Court. The mandate of the Court is to decide the constitutionality of federal laws. In addition, they arbitrate on inter-emirate disputes and the ones involving them against the Federal Government.

The UAE has managed to undertake rapid progress both at the social and economic levels across the two fields of governance. The political system has also been reformed to align its objectives with the changing needs of the people. The changes have also been introduced with the intention of addressing the federation’s development needs (Bellin, 2005). In practice, large-scale changes are controlled by the federal leadership head, namely the President.

In 2006, the emirates held inaugural elections to recruit members to the Federal National Council (Pratt, 2007). The polls were a landmark step towards improving the reform process in the country with the view of enhancing public participation in the political system of the federation. In 2006, the UAE allowed for the election of twenty members to the FNC through an electoral college (Pratt, 2007). Previously, all the forty members to the body were nominees appointed by the respective emirate rulers. Through the approach of electing members to the entity, it is evident that the federation is moving forward towards entrenching the rule of law and public participation in national issues. 

Pratt (2007) also noted that the creation of an Electoral College was a major step towards the establishment of change. The body was created by allowing each emirate to nominate a council with much bigger number of seats it is entitled to fill at the FNC (Pratt, 2007). The representatives are then tasked with the duty of selecting half of the FNC membership for their emirates. The rulers also select the remaining half. The development has proved to be popular owing to its role in increasing the level of public involvement in governance matters.

The changes to the UAE reflect the environment, in which the federation exists and operates. Owing to the changing dynamics, the country is bound to make adjustments in order to modernize itself politically (Pratt, 2007). Elections are a part of the efforts that have been devised to correspond to modern development standards. The presence of an informed and educated citizenry is a part of the reason that explains the changing landscape. Similarly, the shifting perceptions about the role of women are apparent given a range of efforts targeting to give women a possibility to participate in elections.

The local government also plays an important role in the country’s political system. The seven emirates vary in size, as well as their operational mechanisms based on size, population, and development. Abu Dhabi, the largest, as well as most populous emirate has its central governing agency (Executive Council), which is in charge of other organs, such as the Environmental Agency, Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, Health Authority, Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, and ministries (National Media Council, 2008). The implication is that each emirate takes charge on a number of issues. Thus, power is not centralized. The Abu Dhabi emirate is divided into two areas, namely Al Gharbia and the Eastern Region, led by representatives of the Ruler. Major cities, such as Abu Dhabi and Al Ain, are under the administration of municipalities. Additionally, Abu Dhabi has a National Consultative Council, under the guidance of a Speaker. The above attributes demonstrate the dispersion of power to other centers, which is a positive aspect of democracy.

Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

The present kingdom of Saudi Arabia was formed in 1932 under the guidance of Abdulaziz bin Abd al-Rahman Al Saud (Hegghammer, 2010). The leadership style of the kingdom is monarchical and based on heredity. Currently, Ibn Saud is the King, having assumed the reigns in 2005. In 1992, the Basic Law of Governance was established following a royal decree to articulate the rights and responsibilities of the government (Hegghammer, 2010). 

The executive branch is comprised of the King and the Council of Ministers (Cabinet) (Lacey, 2009). The King also occupies the office of the Prime Minister, Head of Government, as well as the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Kingdom. The King also selects the Cabinet, though its membership comprises mostly of family members. Given the hereditary nature of the political system, no elections are held. Moreover, there was a clearly outlined patriarchal system in the Kingdom until 2009 when the King appointed Norah Al-Fayez to become the country’s first female Cabinet official (Lacey, 2009).

The legislative branch is comprised of the Consultative Council, which advises the King on a range of issues that are significant to the country (House, 2012). The author further observes that the Council consists of approximately one hundred fifty members who are appointees of the King. The members hold a four year-term, which is renewable. The leader assigns members to various committee roles based on their experience. In total, there are twelve committees, which handle the following issues: education, culture, human rights, health and social concerns, information, foreign affairs, services and communal utilities security, Islamic affairs, administration, finance, economy, and industry (House, 2012).

Considering the changes experienced by many countries resorting to democracy, in 2003, the Council stated that it had plans to carry elections to fill half the membership of the provincial and local authorities (House, 2012). In addition, a third part of the Consultative Council members would be elected incrementally for four years. Despite the steps taken, no significant elections have been conducted (House, 2012). In 2011, the King indicated that women had a right to be nominated to the Council. Thus, it was not surprising when the King nominated thirty women to serve four year terms to in the Council in 2013. However, the development followed only after passing the legislation requiring that women constitute at least twenty percent of the body membership (House, 2012).

The governing of the country and dispensation of justice tool place based on the Islamic Law. The Saudi court system has three main parts: Shari’ah Courts, the Board of Grievances, and the Supreme Council of Justice (Hegghammer, 2010). The Shari’ah Courts play much greater role than the others by dealing with the vast majority of cases in the Kingdom. The courts are organized into Supreme Judicial Council, Courts of Cassation, and Courts of the First Instance. The Board of Grievances supplements the Shari’ah Courts in hearing cases involving governance matters (Hegghammer, 2010). The third section of the Saudi Arabia court system deals with various committees in government departments that resolve specific disputes, such as labor-related issues. 

The Supreme Council of Justice consists of twelve senior jurists and represents the judicial branch of Government. Within the Kingdom, the administration of justice is done by religious courts under the leadership of judges appointed by the King with the approval of the Supreme Judicial Council (Lacey, 2009). The judiciary’s independence is protected under the Constitution. However, the King acts as the Court of Appeal, and has powers to pardon convicts/offenders (Lacey, 2009). Through a royal order in 2007, changes were made to the judicial system leading, among other things, to the establishment of a Supreme Court, as well as the Commercial, Administrative and Labor Courts (Lacey, 2009). Based on the above information, the Kingdom operates as a closed system, with all powers resting with the King. Moreover, the powers to appoint top officers is concentrated in the hands of the King.


Iran is one of those countries that have an intertwined political system. Despite the complexity of the system, it is evident that the Supreme Leader holds the ultimate authority in the country. The current leader is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who has been in charge since 1989. The Supreme Leader’s office has powers over the judicial branch of government (Curtis & Hooglund, 2008). Besides, the leadership office has powers over the country’s powerful military. 

Although the constitution mandates an 86-member Assembly of elected experts to appoint and dismiss the country’s leader, it is clear that the Supreme Leader has almost an unchallenged control over the State (Takeyh, 2006). Candidates for the Experts Assembly hold office for a period of eight years. A twelve-member body, the Guardian Council, elects the appointees of the Assembly. At the same time, the members of the Council are appointees of the Supreme Leader. The control held by the Supreme Leader is further evident owing to the role that the Guardian Council plays in interpreting the Constitution (Takeyh, 2006). Besides such powers, the Council also enjoys veto power over parliament regarding legislation. Precisely, the Council has powers to veto laws that do not satisfy the Islamic religion standards. Additionally, the Guardian Council is in charge of vetting presidential candidates’ qualifications. Parliamentary aspirants are also assessed by the Council on the issue of knowledge of Islam. In the past, the Council has disqualified new and incumbent candidates seeking candidacy for various reasons.

The two hundred ninety member parliament is famously known as the Islamic Consultative Assembly (Ervand, 2006). Though, it should be stated that bodies comprising of appointed persons, such as the Guardian Council, have more power than the ones consisting of elected officials, such as members of Parliament. In particular, it is noted that the Council and Supreme Leader’s office have main powers regarding budgeting, confirmation of the cabinet, and interrogation of government officers on performance issues. 

Contrary to popular practice across other countries, the Iranian President, who is the second-highest ranking government official, possesses limited powers based on the Constitution (Curtis & Hooglund, 2008). For instance, the Supreme Leader’s orders must be respected regarding the vetting of presidential candidates. Further, upon election, the President must await to be confirmed by the Supreme Leader. It is also evident that the Leader is in charge of both foreign and domestic policies. Besides, the Supreme Leader has powers over the judiciary and the armed forces. However, the President has a role in setting the country’s economic agenda. In line with ensuring that the President does not enjoy the same power as the Supreme Leader, the holder of the position is answerable to Parliament.

The routine public activities in the country are in the purview of three main governance structures: the President, Council of Ministers, and Parliament (Curtis & Hooglund, 2008). The association among the three offices emerges as unusual when taking into consideration the functioning of modern states. In practice, the President is elected by the people of Iran directly. He enjoys many privileges, although he does not have much power as in the case of other states. However, he accredits diplomats, selects ambassadors, signs treaties and legislations, among other functions. The position of prime minister does not exist in the system.  

Considering the above information, it is discerned that the Iranian system is a hybrid version of governance. The President is answerable to Parliament, the same way the ministers are. Parliament has the power to summon ministers or the President to clarify emerging concerns. If Parliament considers the work of Cabinet of Ministers improper, it has the power to dismiss it. 

Findings: Similarities and Differences

After the above review, it is evident that certain aspects of political systems are similar in two countries, while there are also many dissimilar features. From the introduction, it is clear that the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia operate as monarchies, while Iran is more of an authoritarian republic. To begin with, elections serve as a major hallmark of democracy. In two of the three countries, elections are done. However, in Iran, the top leader’s position is hereditary rather than elective. The President who is elected enjoys less power compared to the Supreme Leader who has extensive power despite not being elected. In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, no elections are conducted given the existing monarchical system. However, changes to allow for elections continue being contemplated.

The UAE has continued expanding the democratic principles significantly, when compared to Saudi Arabia and Iran. For instance, in 2006, the UAE held inaugural elections to recruit members to the Federal National Council. Power concentration is also a significant attribute. The employment of a federation as the preferred mode of governance in the UAE demonstrates that power is not concentrated in the hands of one individual or one person. The case is different both in Iran and Saudi Arabia given the total dominance held by the top leaders. 

The issues of legislation and arbitration differ across the three states. In Saudi Arabia, the King has total control. However, in the UAE, some democracy is apparent, and the separation of powers is evident. In Iran, the position of the Supreme Leader accords him the same powers as the ones possessed by the Saudi King, with both leaders operating as the final courts of appeal. The leaders have control over the judiciary, implying the absence of separation of powers. 

Based on the assessment, the Iranian system can be considered as a hybrid governance system. The position is held given the presence of the President, who is answerable to Parliament and the Supreme Leader. Parliament exercises its power by summoning ministers or the President. Nevertheless, despite the President being elected, ultimate power rests with the Supreme Leader. 


The Middle East is famous for its undemocratic approach to governance. Many countries from the region operate against democratic standards, which are perceived as key elements of leadership in the current century. However, many of them, as demonstrated in the paper, continue enacting some reforms towards enhancing public participation in governance. Despite the above-mentioned differences, similarities appear on issues, such as control over the military. For example, the Supreme Leader is in charge of the military forces in Iran. The same case applies to the Saudi Kingdom where the King is in control of the military. In conclusion, it is evident that the political systems of Iran and Saudi Arabia are more similar compared to that of the UAE. The UAE is more democratic, while the other two are more closed, given the centrality of power obtained by the individuals rather than by the official institutions.

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