United Arab Emirates

Not Free
PR Political Rights 5 40
CL Civil Liberties 12 60
Last Year's Score & Status
17 100 Not Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.

header1 Overview

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.

header2 Key Developments in 2020

  • After signing a US-brokered agreement to normalize relations with Israel in September, the Emirati government took steps to suppress public criticism of the move, including the imposition of a travel ban on a writer and the promotion of a mobile application that encourages residents to report illegal speech.
  • The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic seriously harmed the Emirati economy and resulted in a significant outflow of migrant workers. The government warned residents that spreading false information about the disease was a criminal offense. By year’s end, after two waves of infections that peaked in May and October, the country had reported more than 206,000 confirmed cases and 665 deaths.

PR Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

A2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

A3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

B Political Pluralism and Participation

B1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 2020 as part of the broader crackdown, including the prominent economist Nasser bin Ghaith, lawyer Mohammed al-Roken, and human rights advocate Ahmed Mansoor.

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, 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.

C Functioning of Government

C1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 2018, but there has been no obvious change to the crown prince’s de facto leadership.

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

C3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

CL Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 2020. Following the September 2020 agreement to normalize relations with Israel, Emirati authorities barred writer Dhabia Khamis al-Maslamani from leaving the country, and prosecutors began an investigation into her for social media posts that allegedly threatened national security by criticizing normalization.

In November 2020, a court sentenced two men to two years in prison for airing a fabricated story about COVID-19 deaths in a television interview.

D2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 Roman Catholic pontiff to visit the Arabian Peninsula when he traveled to the UAE in 2019 as part of a bid by Emirati officials to emphasize the country’s religious tolerance. Later that year, the authorities announced plans to open an Abrahamic Family House, to include a mosque, a church, and a synagogue, in 2022.

D3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 list, 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.

D4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 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.

During 2020, the government sought to control speech pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as its decision to normalize relations with Israel. The country’s chief prosecutor warned in March that spreading false information about the pandemic was a criminal offense. In September, following the normalization agreement, government-linked accounts on social media reportedly promoted the My Safe Society mobile application; first launched in 2018 by the prosecution service, the app encourages users to report content or activities that threaten the UAE’s security.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

E2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 0.000 4.004

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) 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.

E3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

F Rule of Law

F1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

F2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

F3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 strikes during 2019 to protest the conditions of his detention, having been harshly beaten by prison authorities for his complaints; in October 2019 more than 100 organizations joined a global call for his immediate release, but he remained imprisoned throughout 2020.

Sharia (Islamic law) courts sometimes impose flogging sentences for offenses including drug use, prostitution, and extramarital sex.

F4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 under vaguely worded laws, and LGBT+ people are subject to widespread social stigma.

G Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

G1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 1.001 4.004

Emirati citizens face few apparent restrictions on freedom of movement within the UAE or on their ability to change their place of employment, though societal norms sometimes constrain a woman’s ability to work or travel without the consent of her husband, father, or other male guardian.

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. Qatari nationals have been barred from the UAE since 2017.

During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, restrictions on movement varied among the emirates. Relatively strict lockdowns were imposed in March and April, but tourism-dependent Dubai opened to international visitors a few months later, even as Abu Dhabi maintained tighter travel rules. Basic social-distancing measures remained in place for most of the year.

G2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

Citizens of the UAE and other GCC states are able to own property, though in practice Qatari citizens have been restricted from exercising this right since the 2017 diplomatic rift with Qatar began. In 2019, the emirate-level authorities in Abu Dhabi allowed foreigners to own freehold property in designated investment zones for the first time. Dubai has permitted non-GCC nationals to own property in designated zones since 2001.

Women generally receive smaller inheritances than men under Sharia, and women are excluded from state benefits aimed at supporting home ownership.

G3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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

Women are generally placed at a distinct disadvantage under laws governing marriage and divorce. Among other disparities, a Muslim woman’s male guardian must approve her marriage. Muslim women are forbidden to marry non-Muslims, while Muslim men may marry Christian or Jewish women. Some categories of extramarital sex are criminal offenses, which deters victims from reporting rape. No laws prohibit spousal rape. A measure adopted in late 2019 introduced orders of protection and new criminal penalties to address domestic violence, but its wording appeared to allow some forms of control or punishment by male guardians.

In November 2020, the government announced changes to Sharia-based laws that decriminalized cohabitation by unmarried couples; eliminated penalties for the possession, purchase, or consumption of alcohol by people age 21 or older; and repealed legal provisions that assigned lighter penalties for “honor crimes” against women. The amendments would also allow couples who married in another country to adhere to that country’s laws regarding divorce and inheritance.

G4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

Large numbers of foreign workers reportedly left or sought to leave the country during 2020 after losing their jobs due to economic dislocation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and related lockdowns. In May, Indian authorities announced that nearly 200,000 Indians resident in the UAE had registered for repatriation flights.

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.

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    30 100 not free