The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a federation of seven emirates led in practice by Abu Dhabi, the largest by area and richest in natural resources. Limited elections are held for a federal advisory body, but political parties are banned, and all executive, legislative, and judicial authority ultimately rests with the seven hereditary rulers. The civil liberties of both citizens and noncitizens, who make up an overwhelming majority of the population, are subject to significant restrictions.
- Pope Francis undertook the first papal visit to the UAE and the Arabian Peninsula in February, as Emirati officials sought to burnish the country’s reputation for religious tolerance.
- In May, Emirati media circulated video images of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, ruler of Abu Dhabi and president of the UAE, meeting well-wishers during Ramadan. Sheikh Khalifa had rarely appeared in public since suffering a stroke in 2014; his half-brother and designated heir, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, remained the country’s de facto ruler.
- Nonpartisan elections for half of the seats on the UAE’s advisory council were held in October, featuring a somewhat expanded pool of eligible voters and greater participation by women candidates, though turnout remained low.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||0.000 4.004|
The Federal Supreme Council, comprising the dynastic rulers of the seven emirates, is the country’s highest executive body. It selects a president and vice president from among its members, and the president appoints a prime minister and cabinet. The emirate of Abu Dhabi has controlled the federation’s presidency since its inception in 1971; the current president, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, succeeded his father in 2004. In 2006, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum succeeded his late brother as ruler of the emirate of Dubai and as vice president and prime minister of the UAE.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||1.001 4.004|
The unelected Federal Supreme Council is also the country’s highest legislative authority, but it is advised by the 40-seat Federal National Council (FNC), which can review proposed laws and question government ministers.
Since 2006, half of the FNC’s members have been elected for four-year terms on a nonpartisan basis by an electoral college chosen by the rulers of each emirate, while the government directly appoints the other half. The size of the electoral college has expanded over time. For the October 2019 elections it grew to 337,000 members, up from 224,000 in 2015, though this still fell far short of the entire voting-age citizen population. Close to 500 candidates vied for the 20 elected seats. Voter turnout remained low at about 35 percent, matching the 2015 level.
There are no elected legislative bodies in the individual emirates.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||0.000 4.004|
The UAE’s electoral framework applies only to the advisory FNC, and it lacks universal suffrage. While the electoral college has expanded, and overseas voting was permitted for the first time in 2015, there is no accountability for the procedures by which the rulers of each emirate draw up the lists of eligible voters. The geographical allocation of FNC seats results in significant overrepresentation for the smaller emirates.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?||0.000 4.004|
Political parties are banned, and all electoral candidates run as independents.
Since 2011, the UAE has aggressively cracked down on opposition activists, particularly if they are suspected of belonging to the Association for Reform and Guidance (Al-Islah), a group formed in 1974 to advocate for democratic reform. The government has accused members of Al-Islah of being foreign agents of the Muslim Brotherhood intent on overthrowing the regime, and designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization in 2014. Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood has been a factor in efforts by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and their regional allies to isolate that country since 2017. Dozens of activists, civil society leaders, academics, and students remained imprisoned during 2019 as part of the broader crackdown.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||0.000 4.004|
The political system grants the emirates’ hereditary rulers a monopoly on power and excludes the possibility of a change in government through elections.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?||1.001 4.004|
The political choices available to eligible voters are severely limited in practice, and the alignments of both voters and candidates are heavily influenced by tribal networks.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||1.001 4.004|
Approximately 90 percent of the population of the UAE consists of noncitizens who lack political rights and electoral opportunities, including thousands of stateless residents. There is no clear process for obtaining citizenship without Emirati parentage or marriage to an Emirati man; children of Emirati mothers and foreign fathers must apply for naturalization.
Women make up about 50 percent of the FNC electoral college, and approximately 180 women ran as candidates in the 2019 elections, more than double the 78 who ran in 2015. Women won seven of the elected seats on the council, and the authorities appointed 13 women in keeping with a pledge to ensure equal representation in the 40-member body. In practice, however, ordinary women have little opportunity to organize independently and advance their interests through the political system.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||0.000 4.004|
Government policies are determined by the dynastic rulers of the seven emirates. The FNC performs only advisory functions and has struggled to arrange hearings with government ministers. In practice, policymaking authority has coalesced around the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, since the titular UAE president suffered a stroke in 2014. The president, Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, has made occasional appearances in state media since June 2018, including video images of him greeting guests during Ramadan in May 2019, but there has been no obvious change to the crown prince’s de facto leadership.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||2.002 4.004|
The UAE is considered one of the least corrupt countries in the Middle East, and the government has taken steps to increase efficiency and streamline the bureaucracy. Nevertheless, there are no genuinely independent anticorruption mechanisms, and senior members of the ruling families are able to shield themselves and their associates from public scrutiny.
The collapse of the Abraaj Group private equity firm beginning in 2018, several months after institutional investors questioned its alleged mismanagement of funds, highlighted regulatory and oversight weaknesses in the financial sector in Dubai that could also have implications for the strength of the country’s safeguards against public-sector malfeasance.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||0.000 4.004|
The government generally lacks transparency, and despite legal provisions for access to public information, it remains difficult in practice. The State Audit Institution does not release public information about its reports, and its remit is limited to federal entities and state-owned companies, whereas most spending takes place in the individual emirates; the institution can conduct audits of an emirate’s entities if asked by its ruler.
|Are there free and independent media?||0.000 4.004|
The 1980 Publications and Publishing Law, considered one of the most restrictive press laws in the Arab world, regulates all aspects of the media and prohibits criticism of the government. Journalists commonly practice self-censorship, and outlets frequently publish government statements without criticism or comment. Media operate with more freedom in certain “free zones”—areas in which foreign media outlets can produce news content intended for foreign audiences—but the zones remain subject to UAE media laws and have additional regulatory codes and authorities.
Emirati-owned and UAE-based media outlets have participated actively in a government-backed media campaign against Qatar that began in 2017. The attorney general warned that year that anyone who showed sympathy or favoritism toward Qatar in any medium could be punished with three to 15 years in prison and a fine of at least 500,000 dirhams ($136,000) under the penal code and a highly restrictive 2012 cybercrime law.
A number of well-known commentators have been jailed in recent years for criticizing the authorities, expressing support for dissidents or human rights, or calling for political reform. Leading human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2018 for using social media to “publish false information that damages the country’s reputation,” was among those who remained behind bars in 2019.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||1.001 4.004|
Islam is the official religion, and the majority of citizens are Sunni Muslims. Blasphemy is a criminal offense, as is proselytizing to Muslims by non-Muslim groups. The General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments provides regular guidance to Muslim preachers; it and a Dubai counterpart appoint the country’s Sunni imams. Shiite clergy have their own council to manage religious affairs.
There have been some allegations of noncitizen Shiite Muslims facing discrimination or deportation in recent years. Christian, Hindu, and Sikh places of worship have been built on plots of land donated by ruling family members. Pope Francis became the first pontiff to visit the Arabian Peninsula when he traveled to the UAE in February 2019 as part of a bid by Emirati officials to emphasize the country’s religious tolerance. In September the authorities announced plans to open an Abrahamic Family House, to include a mosque, a church, and a synagogue, in 2022.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||1.001 4.004|
The Ministry of Education censors textbooks and curriculums in both public and private schools. Islamic education is required in public schools and for Muslims in private schools. Several foreign universities have opened satellite campuses in the UAE, although faculty members are generally careful to avoid criticizing the government. At least 10 faculty members from New York University (NYU) have been denied entry to teach or conduct research at NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus. Students, staff, and support personnel have also been denied entry. The UAE authorities have placed scholars and students who have criticized aspects of government policy on a unified Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) security blacklist, barring them from the wider region.
In 2018, British doctoral student Matthew Hedges was arrested after completing a research trip to the country. He was held in solitary confinement in Abu Dhabi for five months, convicted on espionage charges after a trial that lasted five minutes, and sentenced to life imprisonment. Under international pressure, he was then pardoned by the UAE president and promptly deported.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||1.001 4.004|
A number of laws give authorities broad discretion to punish individuals’ speech on sensitive topics. The 2012 cybercrime law, which amended and replaced one passed in 2006, introduced lengthy prison terms for vaguely worded offenses such as damaging “the reputation or the stature of the state or any of its institutions.” A 2014 counterterrorism law prescribes punishments including the death penalty for offenses like “undermining national security” and possession of material that opposes or denigrates Islam. A 2015 law against hate speech and discrimination contained loosely worded definitions and criminalized a wide range of free speech activities. These and other criminal laws have been actively enforced, including against ordinary social media users.
Human Rights Watch reported in December 2019 that the authorities had systematically persecuted the relatives and associates of jailed or exiled dissidents, for example by revoking their citizenship, withholding identity documents, banning travel, denying them access to education and employment, and subjecting them to surveillance and intimidation. Such practices serve as a further deterrent to unfettered speech.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||1.001 4.004|
The government places restrictions on freedom of assembly. Public meetings require government permits, and unauthorized political or labor protests are subject to dispersal by police. Demonstrations are rare in practice.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||0.000 4.004|
Nongovernmental organizations must register with the Ministry of Social Affairs and can receive subsidies from the government, though they are subject to many restrictions. International human rights groups have been denied entry to the UAE. Local human rights activists are at serious risk of detention, prosecution, and mistreatment in custody, and their relatives may be subject to various forms of harassment.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||1.001 4.004|
Workers—most of whom are foreign—do not have the right to form unions, bargain collectively, or strike. They can seek collective redress for grievances through state mediation or the courts, and the government sometimes arranges concessions and settlements. Workers occasionally protest against unpaid wages and poor working and living conditions, but such demonstrations are typically dispersed by security personnel, and noncitizens who participate risk deportation. Professional associations require government licenses and are closely monitored by the authorities.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||0.000 4.004|
The judiciary is not independent, with court rulings subject to review by the political leadership. Judges are appointed by executive decree, and the judiciary as an institution is managed largely by executive officials. Many judges are foreigners working on short-term contracts.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||1.001 4.004|
Detainees are often denied adequate access to legal counsel during interrogations, and lengthy detention without charge is not uncommon. Judges are empowered to extend such detention indefinitely. Systematic violations of international due process standards have been observed in numerous high-profile trials involving political dissidents, human rights defenders, and foreigners, among others. Some of those convicted have their detentions arbitrarily extended after their sentences are complete.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||1.001 4.004|
Authorities have been criticized by international human rights organizations for failure to investigate allegations of torture and mistreatment in custody, including denial of medical care. Detainees regularly report abuse by the authorities. Ahmed Mansoor went on hunger strike in May and September 2019 to protest the conditions of his detention, having been harshly beaten by prison authorities for his complaints; in October more than 100 organizations joined a global call for his immediate release.
Sharia (Islamic law) courts sometimes impose flogging sentences for offenses including drug use, prostitution, and extramarital sex.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||1.001 4.004|
Discrimination against noncitizens and foreign workers is common, and they are at risk of deportation for relatively minor offenses. Women face legal and societal discrimination on a variety of issues, including employment. Same-sex sexual relations can draw harsh criminal penalties, and LGBT+ people are subject to widespread social stigma.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||1.001 4.004|
Emiratis face no apparent restrictions on freedom of movement within the UAE or on their ability to change their place of employment, but under the country’s kafala system, migrant workers’ legal status is tied to their employers’ sponsorship, meaning they can be punished or deported for leaving employment without meeting certain criteria. Stateless residents’ freedom of movement is limited by their lack of travel documents; under a government program, many stateless people have received passports from the Comoros that ease travel and other activities but do not confer full citizenship. Societal norms sometimes restrict a woman’s ability to travel without the consent of her husband or father. Qatari nationals have been barred from the UAE since 2017.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||1.001 4.004|
The UAE has enacted reforms in recent years to ease procedures for establishing and operating businesses. However, the government and ruling families exercise considerable influence over the economy and are involved in many of the country’s major economic and commercial initiatives, limiting the space for genuinely private business activity.
Women generally receive smaller inheritances than men under Sharia, and women are excluded from state benefits aimed at supporting home ownership.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||1.001 4.004|
Muslim women are forbidden to marry non-Muslims, while Muslim men may marry Christian or Jewish women. Women are generally at a distinct disadvantage under laws governing marriage and divorce. All sexual relations outside legal marriage are criminal offenses, which deters victims from reporting rape. No laws protect against spousal rape or domestic violence.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||1.001 4.004|
Foreign workers are often exploited and subjected to harsh working conditions, physical abuse, and withholding of passports with little to no access to legal recourse. A series of ministerial decrees issued in 2015 aimed to give migrant workers more flexibility to terminate employment under certain conditions. Foreign household workers were not covered by those decrees or by labor laws in general, leaving them especially vulnerable. A law adopted in 2017 guaranteed such household workers basic protections and benefits including sick leave and daily rest periods, though they were inferior to those in the national labor law, and household workers would still be unable to leave their employers without a breach of contract.
A competitive rivalry between Abu Dhabi and Dubai for eye-catching development projects masks deeper sensitivities in relations between these two emirates and the five less affluent emirates in the northeast. Economic disparities also persist among UAE citizens across the seven emirates and between citizens and the noncitizen majority.
On United Arab Emirates
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Global Freedom Score17 100 not free
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