Freedom in the World
You are here
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 Nahyan, president of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) since its founding, died in 2004, setting off a transition of power to the next generation in the ruling family.
For most of its history, the territory of the UAE - a federation of seven separate emirates formerly known as the Trucial States - was controlled by various competing tribal forces. Attacks on shipping in waters off the coast of this territory led British forces to conduct raids against the tribes in the nineteenth century. In 1853, the tribal leaders signed a treaty with the United Kingdom agreeing to a truce, which led to a decline in the raids on shipping. Though never formal British colonies, the territories were provided protection by the British, and tribal leaders of the emirates often referred their disputes to the United Kingdom for mediation.
In 1971, the United Kingdom announced that it was ending its treaty relationships with the seven emirates of the Trucial States, as well as Bahrain and Qatar. Six of the seven states entered into a federation called the United Arab Emirates, and Ras al-Khaimah, the seventh state, joined in 1972. The 1971 provisional constitution kept significant power in the hands of each individual emirate.
In contrast to many of its neighbors, the UAE has achieved some success in diversifying its economy beyond dependency on the petroleum sector, building a leading free trade zone in Dubai and a major manufacturing center in Sharjah, as well as investing resources to develop its profile as a leading center for tourism in the region. In 2001, the government cracked down on corruption with arrests of senior officials. In the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the government introduced reforms in its financial services and banking sectors to cut down on terrorist financing.
Economic reform has not been matched by political reform in the UAE, which has a closed political system in which the views of citizens are not taken into account. Recent reforms undertaken in the governance sector are generally more closely related to issues of trade, commerce, and the economy than to the enhancement of political rights and civil liberties. Political power remains in the hands of traditional tribal leaders.
After the death of President Sheikh Zayed in 2004, the UAE's Supreme Council of Rulers selected Zayed's oldest son, Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, as president. Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan replaced Khalifa as crown prince. This shift in power to the new generation did not result in any meaningful and substantive changes in the UAE's power structure, with the ruling family maintaining a firm grip on its monopoly of political power.
Citizens of the UAE cannot change their government democratically. The UAE has never held an election. All decisions about political leadership rest with the dynastic rulers of the seven separate emirates of the UAE in what is known as the Supreme Council of Rulers, the highest executive and legislative body in the country. These seven leaders select a president and vice president, and the president appoints a prime minister and cabinet. The UAE has a 40-member Federal National Council with delegates appointed by the seven leaders every two years. However, the council serves only as an advisory body, reviewing proposed laws and questioning federal government ministers.
The UAE does not have political parties. Rather, the allocation of positions in the government is largely determined by tribal loyalties and economic power. Abu Dhabi, the major oil producer in the UAE, has controlled the presidency of the UAE since its inception. Citizens have limited opportunities to express their interests through traditional consultative sessions.
The United Arab Emirates is considered among the least corrupt countries in the region, with fewer reported cases of official corruption in 2004; it was ranked 29 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Although the UAE's constitution provides for some freedom of expression, in practice the government severely restricts this right. The Printing and Publishing Law (No. 15 of 1980) applies to all media and prohibits "defamatory material and negative material about presidents, friendly countries, [and] religious issues, and [prohibits] pornography." Laws prohibit criticism of the government, ruling families, and friendly governments, and they also include vague provisions against statements that threaten society. As a consequence, journalists commonly practice self-censorship, and the leading media outlets in the UAE frequently publish government statements without criticism or comment. However, Dubai has a "Media Free Zone," where few restrictions have been reported on print and broadcast media produced for audiences outside of the UAE. Internet access is widely available, though there were reports that a leading Internet service provider, the government-owned Etisalat, blocked sites deemed morally objectionable from time to time.
The UAE's constitution provides for freedom of religion. Islam is the official religion, and the majority of citizens are Sunnis. However, Shia minorities are free to worship without interference. The government controls content in nearly all Sunni mosques. Academic freedom is limited, with the Ministry of Education censoring textbooks and curriculums in both public and private schools.
The government places limits on freedom of assembly and association. Small discussions on politics in private homes are generally tolerated, but there are limits on citizens' ability to organize broader gatherings. Public meetings require government permits. All nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) must register with the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, and registered NGOs reportedly receive subsidies from the government.
The UAE has no labor unions, although the government has mediated labor disputes. Foreign nationals, who make up the vast majority of the UAE's workforce, are generally not offered labor protections. In July 2003, the government issued a ban on a long-standing practice of employers forcing foreign employees to surrender their passports as a condition of employment.
The judiciary is not independent, with court rulings subject to review by the UAE's political leadership. An estimated 40 to 45 percent of judges in the court system are noncitizen foreign nationals. Although the constitution bans torture, Sharia (Islamic law) courts sometimes impose flogging sentences for individuals found guilty of drug use, prostitution, and adultery. In July 2004, the UAE passed new legislation setting stricter punishments for crimes involving terrorism, including financing terrorism and harboring terrorists.
Discrimination against non-citizens, who make up the vast majority of the population and at least half of the workforce, occurs in many aspects of life, including employment, access to education, housing, and healthcare.
The constitution provides for equality before the law but does not specifically mention gender equality. In practice, women's social, economic, and legal rights are not always protected because of incomplete implementation of the law and traditional biases against women. Women are underrepresented in government, although there are small signs of limited openings for women, with women receiving appointments at various levels of government in 2004. Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi became the first woman minister in the UAE when she was appointed minister of the economy and planning. In addition, Sheikh Sultan Al Qasimi, the ruler of Sharja, one of the seven emirates, appointed five women to Sharja's consultative council.
Human trafficking and forced labor remain problems in the UAE. Despite a July 2002 ban on using children under the age of 15 as jockeys in camel races, several human rights monitors report continued problems with young children from South Asia being kidnapped or sold by relatives into slavery and trafficked to the UAE for use as camel jockeys in races. There are numerous allegations of physical abuse and malnourishment aimed at keeping the children jockeys under desired weight levels.