A group of citizens in the United Arab Emirates petitioned the rulers Wednesday to allow a popularly elected parliament, signaling that demands for leadership overhauls raging across the Middle East have also reached the oil-rich Gulf federation.
Bahrain has been gripped by a three-week uprising, and smaller rallies for greater political freedoms have taken place in Kuwait, Oman and even Saudi Arabia.
There are no official opposition groups in the Emirates, which is a union of seven sheikdoms. Activists who advocate change have until now been largely idle during the region's unprecedented political unrest.
The petition, signed by 130 pro-reform supporters, was a sign that Emiratis now too are acting on the inspiration by the Egyptian and Tunisian revolts. It demands the ruling system changes, gives them a say in the running of the country and a share in its oil wealth.
"By putting these demands forward at this time we wanted to send a message that cannot be missed: We have some demands for political reform and democracy, too," said Ahmed Mansour, an Emirati human rights activist and a blogger.
The petition was addressed to the Emirates' president and the ruler of the oil-rich capital Abu Dhabi, Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The petitioners demanded "a comprehensive reform of the parliamentary system" and "free elections for all citizens."
They also called for constitutional reforms and the granting of legislative powers to an elected parliament.
The Emirates' current parliament is based in Abu Dhabi and serves as an advisory body. Its 40 members are either directly appointed by the ruling sheiks or elected by citizens hand-picked by the rulers to vote.
Abu Dhabi's Al Nahyan family controls the Emirates' vast oil riches and holds most government positions. Al Nahyans also have considerable influence over the other six city-states, including the deeply indebted boomtown of Dubai.
Political parties and rallies are banned in the Emirates. Migrant laborers from Southeast Asia have staged street protests against low wages and poor working conditions during Dubai's construction frenzy, but all rallies ended in a police crackdown that included jailing and deporting thousands of workers.
Activists have complained of stepped-up harassment in the past year even as the conservative Muslim federation _ where Dubai and Abu Dhabi pride themselves in a Western outlook _ showcases itself as an economic and cultural powerhouse.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch said in its World Report 2011 that the human rights situation has sharply deteriorated in the United Arab Emirates with the authorities prosecuting and jailing activists who advocate political reforms and greater press freedoms.
The report also said authorities have stepped up monitoring of blogs and social media, which played a key role in the uprisings that brought down the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt and have served as an inspiration for political activists across the Middle East.
"Unfortunately, the UAE government is ignoring the historical developments in the Arab world and continues arresting people just because they express support for the Egyptian revolutionaries," Mansour said.