Freedom in the World
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United Arab Emirates
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahayan celebrated 30 years as president of the United Arab Emirates in December 2001. Having ruled the federation since its formation in 1971, he is credited with turning a poor backwater into one of the world's richest countries, using oil revenues to fund extensive domestic development. The 2000 United Nations Human Development Report placed the UAE among the world's top performers in terms of quality of life as measured by real income, life expectancy, and educational standards.
The seven emirates that constitute the UAE formed a unified federation after gaining independence from Great Britain in 1971. Under the 1971 provisional constitution, the emirate rulers make up the Federal Supreme Council, the highest legislative and executive body. The council elects a state president and vice president from among its membership, and the president appoints the prime minister and cabinet. A 40-member Federal National Council, composed of delegates appointed by the seven rulers, serves as an advisory body with no legislative authority. While there are separate consultative councils in several emirates, there are no political parties or popular elections.
The UAE boasts a free market economy based on oil and gas production, trade, and services. The economy provides citizens with a high per capita income but is heavily dependent on foreign workers. The government has made strides in diversifying the economy. The Dubai Ports Authority has acquired a string of contracts at major port facilities along the Arab peninsula and the Red Sea, making the UAE a leader in regional shipping. In January 2001, officials officially unveiled the Dubai Media City, a multi-million dollar business park designed to attract global media companies. Still, the UAE is heavily reliant on oil exports and vulnerable to dramatic fluctuations in price. GDP growth in 2000, when oil prices were high, was 17.1 percent. Forecasted growth for 2001 was 2.5 percent.
In February, the government launched a major crackdown on corruption by arresting the Dubai customs chief, who was also head of the Brussels-based World Customs Organization, on charges of graft. He was later sentenced to a 27-year jail term. Fourteen airport officials were arrested on corruption charges later in February. One received 31 years in prison, while five others received sentences ranging from three to seven years. State newspapers published the full names and photos of the officials in a new "name and shame" policy.
The UAE has maintained a generally pro-Western foreign policy since the Persian Gulf War and continues to cooperate militarily with the United States, Britain, and France. Following the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, the UAE cut ties with Afghanistan's ruling Taliban regime after failing to persuade Taliban officials to hand over Saudi-born terrorist-in-exile Osama bin Laden. In November, the UAE ordered financial institutions to freeze the assets of 62 organizations and individuals suspected by the United States of funding terrorist activities.
Citizens of the UAE cannot change their government democratically. There are no elections at any level, political parties are illegal, and the Federal Supreme Council holds all executive and legislative authority. The seven emirate rulers, their extended families, and their allies wield political control in their respective emirates. Citizens may voice concerns to their leaders through open majlises (gatherings) held by the emirate rulers.
The judiciary is not independent; its decisions are subject to review by the political leadership. The judicial system comprises both Sharia (Islamic law) and secular courts. There are no jury trials, but due process protections exist in both religious and secular courts. Military courts try only military personnel, and there is no separate state security court system. Sharia allows for corporal punishment for such crimes as adultery, prostitution, and drug or alcohol abuse. Drug trafficking has been a capital offense since 1995, though executions are rarely reported. Police may enter homes without warrants or probable cause, but their actions are subject to review and disciplinary action. A Libyan national arrested in August died in custody in September. Amnesty International urged the government to investigate what officials called a suicide, and expressed concern for four other Libyan activists detained between May and August. In June, Sheikh Zayed pardoned 6,000 prisoners, mostly those convicted on drug-related charges or financial crimes. Large amnesties are frequently granted during national or religious holidays.
Journalists routinely censor themselves when reporting on government policy, national security, and religion, and refrain from criticizing the ruling families. The print media are largely privately owned but receive government subsidies. Foreign publications are censored. Broadcast media are government owned and present only government views. Satellite dishes are widely owned and provide foreign broadcasting without censorship. The UAE is the most Internet-connected country in the Arab world, with some 500,000 users. In October, Dubai launched a new Web portal to provide online government services to citizens and visitors. In January 2001, UAE defense minister Sheikh Mohammed said that the new Dubai Media City would offer news media freedom from political restrictions, but warned that this freedom should not be abused.
The government limits freedom of assembly and association. Permits are required for organized public gatherings. Political discussion is generally confined to gatherings in private homes which are tolerated by officials. Private associations must be licensed, but enforcement is inconsistent.
Islam is the official religion of the UAE. About 85 percent of citizens are Sunni Muslim, and 15 percent Shiite. About 95 percent of Sunni mosques are government funded or subsidized. Shia are free to worship and to maintain mosques. The government ensures that religious sermons do not deviate frequently or significantly from approved topics. A limited number of Christians are granted legal recognition. Non- Muslims may practice freely but may not proselytize or distribute religious literature. In April, the al-Khaleej newspaper reported that three Americans had been arrested for distributing literature promoting Christianity.
Women are well represented in education, government, and the professions, but face discrimination in job benefits and promotion. There are numerous NGOs that focus on women's issues such as domestic violence. Islamic law discriminates against women in family matters such as divorce and inheritance, and tradition keeps many women from working. A married woman must have her husband's consent to accept employment or to travel abroad. The first all-female shopping mall opened early in 2000 in Abu Dhabi. Its aim is to provide privacy to women who wish to shop without wearing the abaya, a head-to-toe covering required in the presence of men by strict Islamic dress codes. In January 2001, The Economist reported that the government-funded UAE Marriage Fund warned that marriages between UAE nationals and non-nationals were a threat to social stability, particularly if they involve non-Muslims. In the future, said The Economist, a foreign woman under 40 years of age will not receive an entry visa unless she travels with a male relation.
Trade unions, strikes, and collective bargaining are illegal in the UAE and do not occur. Foreign nationals make up about 85 to 90 percent of the workforce, and sometimes fall prey to abuse by managers who take most of their earnings and force them to work long hours in extreme heat or under other dangerous conditions. Labor law offers some protection, but most abuse goes unreported. In January 2001, a Sharia court acquitted a housemaid from the Philippines accused of killing her employer. The court ruled that the woman, who has been jailed for two years, had acted in self-defense when her employer attempted to rape her.