DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – Hand-picked voters chose members of a government advisory panel Saturday in this tiny oil-rich country’s first election, the Arab world’s latest tentative step toward democracy.

Saturday was the first of a three-day vote for 20 open seats on the Federal National Council, an advisory body seen as an eventual precursor to a national parliament. Some 450 candidates were running, including 65 women.

Nearly 1,700 people were chosen to vote by the government in the capital, Abu Dhabi, the state-run news agency WAM reported. They elected three men and a woman to the council. More than 400 voters were picked in the eastern emirate of Fujeirah. where four men were elected, WAM said.

Elections in Dubai and the other four emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates were scheduled for Monday and Wednesday.

The vote is the Emirates’ first since it was formed in 1971. The country of 800,000 citizens and 3.7 million foreign resident workers is one of the most socially liberal Persian Gulf states, but the least advanced politically. Every one of its neighbors, even conservative Saudi Arabia, which like the Emirates, is run by tribal royal families, has held some sort of election.

The government hedged against the likelihood of revolutionary change by hand-picking the 6,700 people allowed to vote over the three days. It also has balanced the 20 elected members of the FNC with 20 appointed members.

The council itself has no formal power and acts only as a panel whose advice can be discarded.

In December 2005, Emirates President Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan said political reforms will eventually lead to the country’s first general elections and the creation of a parliament. But the Emirates currently has no elections law, no guidelines for the formation of political parties and no constitutional provision for a parliament.

There also is little clamor for elections in a wealthy country whose citizens are a privileged minority with access to free housing and lucrative government jobs. Many here say the galloping economy is evidence the government has done a good job.

Still, some newspapers lauded Saturday’s elections as historic.

“It is the first and cautious step on a long road to democracy,” the Gulf News daily said in an editorial.

AP-ES-12-16-06 1956EST

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.