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UK Election: Final countdown for Gulf expats to register

The UK ramped up efforts to encourage Brits to vote – but not everyone in the Gulf got the message

Ben Flanagan

Published: Updated:

The clock is ticking for British expats in the Gulf to register to vote in the hotly contested May 7 election – but, despite a high-profile awareness campaign, not all overseas residents are aware they can have their say in the polls.

The UK’s Electoral Commission, an independent body that sets election standards, has urged expats to register before the deadline of 12 midnight on Monday 20 April.

Overseas voters can choose to vote either by post or by proxy, where a trusted person is nominated to vote on behalf of another.

“We’re encouraging UK expats to join the many others who have already registered to vote online. It takes just a few minutes at www.gov.uk/register-to-vote and is far easier than the old, paper based process,” Alex Robertson, Director of Communications at the Electoral Commission, said in a statement. “There’s been a great response so far and we don’t want anyone to miss out on having their say on polling day.”

Few overseas voters

The commission told Al Arabiya News there are no specific statistics available on voting habits among Gulf expats. It cited estimates showing there could be a total of 5.5 million UK citizens living overseas – but that there were only 15,849 overseas voters on UK electoral registers prior to June.

“Since the introduction of the new online registration portal in June 2014, there have been tens of thousands UK citizens logging on to use the system from all around the world,” the commission said.

Jonathon Davidson, chairman of the British Business Group (BBG) of Dubai and the Northern Emirates, welcomed the campaign to encourage more Brits abroad to vote.

“We can see there has been a great deal of work done by the commission to raise the visibility of the election and encourage expats to vote; as is evident by the use of advertising on social media channels,” he told Al Arabiya News.

“We haven’t polled BBG members on whether they will vote or not but there does seem to be a greater awareness of the election this year; whether this is down to the nature of the campaigning, the electoral commission’s work, or indeed a wave of interest following the Scottish Independence vote it is hard to say. It is more likely a combination of all three but the proof will be on election day when we see the turnout.”

For UK residents only?

But the efforts of the Electoral Commission to encourage expats to vote have been lost on some residents of the Gulf.

Lindsey, a 34-year-old British expat living in Dubai who preferred not to give her family name, said she was not aware she was even entitled to vote in the elections.

“I was sure that you had to be a UK resident. I saw something on Facebook about expats voting but figured I'm too late now to register,” she told Al Arabiya News.

“If the constituency I was voting within was where I come from in UK, then that’s a pretty safe Tory [Conservative Party] seat in any case. I don't think my vote would be missed whichever way I voted. We are really interested in the election though – watching a lot on Sky News and reading the British papers online.”

15-year rule

The ruling Conservative party and opposition Labour are currently neck-and-neck in the polls, as David Cameron – the incumbent Prime Minister – is challenged by Ed Miliband for the top job in UK politics. Smaller parties such as the Scottish National Party (SNP) have also garnered attention, suggesting the possibility of another coalition government made up of more than one party.

Rights for expatriate voters have been part of the election agenda this year. British nationals who live outside the country for more than 15 years automatically lose their right to vote. But the Conservative Party has promised to abolish the controversial ’15-year rule’ should David Cameron score a victory in the May election.

An estimated one million Brits are prevented from voting because of the rule, according to press reports.

One is media boss Ian Fairservice, who moved to the UAE in the 1970s and later founded the Dubai-based Motivate Publishing.

He told Al Arabiya News that he would vote were he given the chance.

“[I] feel that expats should have a right to do so irrespective of how many years they’ve been overseas,” he said. “Expatriates make an important contribution to the British economy as well as being global ambassadors of UK Inc.”

But not all Brits abroad feel the same way.

Raz, a Dubai resident since the mid-2000s who preferred not to give his surname, said he had not registered to vote because he lived abroad.

“To be honest don't have a clue about UK politics, as I have been overseas for so long,” he said.