United Arab Emirates | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

United Arab Emirates

United Arab Emirates

Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


While the ruling families of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) make little pretense of respecting the political and civil liberties of their subjects, they have managed to minimize the legal capriciousness normally associated with autocratic rule in the Middle East and have built the region's most vibrant, diversified economy. However, revelations that much of the financing for the September 11, 2001, attacks on the Unites States passed through the UAE reinforced the supposition that the country remains a key financial hub of international terrorism. The government enacted stringent anti-money-laundering laws and other regulatory reforms in 2002.

The UAE is a federation of seven emirates, previously known as the Trucial States, established after the British withdrew from the Persian Gulf in 1971. Every five years the rulers of the seven emirates choose one of their own to serve as federal president, but this position has only been held by the ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahayan.

While most of its petroleum-rich neighbors squandered their oil revenue on consumption, over the next three decades the UAE poured petrodollars into developing a diversified modern economy. More remarkable than the country's current per capita income of almost $18,000--more than double that of neighboring Saudi Arabia--is the fact that most of it is not derived from the sales of oil or natural gas. Although Abu Dhabi remains the economic powerhouse of the UAE, the emirate of Sharjah has developed into a major manufacturing sector, while Dubai hosts the region's leading free-trade zone and is becoming the largest year-round tourist center in the Persian Gulf region.

This unparalleled economic prosperity has produced an equally unparalleled political stability. Although some radical Islamist figures have challenged the concentration of wealth in the hands of the royal families over the years (and were promptly expelled), their influence remains minimal. The country nevertheless faces significant challenges. With one of the highest rates of population growth in the world, the UAE cannot continue to easily absorb record numbers of citizens entering the job market by expanding the civil service. The country's soaring demand for electricity has made privatization of public utilities a top priority. In 2001, the government launched a major crackdown on corruption, arresting senior officials such as the Dubai customs chief. State newspapers published the full names and photos of the officials in a new "name and shame" policy.

The rise of the UAE as a major financial center has made it a major transshipment point for drug trafficking and terrorism financing. Although the UAE enacted the most region's most stringent anti-money-laundering law in January 2002, there were reports in September that al-Qaeda was shipping gold to the Sudan through Dubai's metal markets. In October, UAE police apprehended a top al-Qaeda operative, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. The UAE's official news agency, which reported the arrest two months later, said he had been planning attacks on "vital economic targets" in the UAE that were likely to inflict "the highest possible casualties among nationals and foreigners."

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens of the UAE cannot change their government democratically. The seven dynastic rulers of the emirates collectively constitute the Federal Supreme Council (FSC), which selects the president and vice president every five years and ratifies federal legislation. The president appoints the prime minister and cabinet. The 40-member Federal National Council (Majlis al-Ittihad al-Watani), composed of delegates appointed by the 7 rulers, serves as an advisory body but has no legislative authority. There are no elections at any level, and political parties are illegal.

Although the constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest, UAE laws permit incommunicado detention if police believe that communication between a suspect and third parties may compromise an ongoing investigation. Suspects in police custody can be detained without charge indefinitely upon court order and are not entitled to legal counsel until an investigation is completed. Torture and death in police custody are reportedly rare, though governmental claims that the death of a Libyan national under arrest in September 2001 resulted from suicide have been questioned by Amnesty International.

The judiciary is not independent, as most judges are foreign nationals appointed to renewable terms and court rulings 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. Sharia allows for corporal punishment for such crimes as adultery, prostitution, and drug or alcohol abuse. Drug trafficking is a capital offense, though executions are rare.

Freedom of expression is protected under the constitution, but strictly limited in practice. Broadcast media are almost entirely state owned and adhere to official guidelines. Journalists and academics exercise self-censorship regarding governmental policy, national security, and religion. Most print publications are privately owned, but receive government subsidies and often publish verbatim articles from the state-run Emirates News Agency. Foreign publications are censored, though satellite dishes are widely owned and provide access to uncensored foreign broadcasting. The state maintains a monopoly on Internet service and blocks access to radical Islamic Web sites.

The government limits freedom of assembly and association. Permits are required for organized public gatherings and are rarely granted, though enforcement varies from emirate to emirate. Informal political discussion forums held in private homes are tolerated. All nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) must be registered by the government. While a number of unregistered groups operate openly, there are no independent human rights groups.

Trade unions, strikes, and collective bargaining are illegal. Foreign nationals, who make up a staggering 98 percent of the private workforce, are subject to abuse and nonpayment of wages by employers. While labor law offers some protection, most abuse goes unreported. In June 2002, the UAE press reported that an Asian worker died and 15 fell ill at a labor camp , where workers lived in sweltering heat without water or electricity for several days because their Dubai-based employer had not paid the utility bills. In September, the government criminalized the hiring of camel jockeys under the age of 15.

Islam is the official religion of the UAE, where 85 percent of citizens are Sunni Muslim and 15 percent are Shiite Muslim. The vast majority of Sunni mosques receive substantial government funding, while all Sunni imams are employees of either federal or local government and do not deviate from approved topics in their sermons. While Shiite mosques operate independently of the government, they also adhere to government guidelines. Non-Muslims, mostly foreign nationals, may practice freely but may not proselytize or distribute religious literature. Although Christian churches and schools are widespread, there are no Buddhist temples and only one Hindu temple in the UAE.

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. Sharia 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. Polygamy is legal.