United Arab Emirates | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

United Arab Emirates

United Arab Emirates

Freedom in the World 2006

2006 Scores


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Freedom Rating
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Civil Liberties
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Political Rights
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The United Arab Emirates (UAE) experienced no major changes on political rights and civil liberties, despite the emergence of a new leader in November 2004 after the death of the UAE's longtime president, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahayan. The UAE took some initial steps to address major problems with its record on human trafficking in 2005, including implementing a ban on the use of children as jockeys in camel races.

For most of its history, the territory of the United Arab Emirates (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 with 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. The UAE is one of the most economically diverse countries in the Gulf region.

In 2001, the government cracked down on corruption with arrests of some senior officials. In the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, the government introduced reforms in its financial services and banking sectors to cut down on the financing of terrorism.

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 bin Sultan Al Nahayan 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 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.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

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 a limited opportunity to express their interests through traditional consultative sessions.

The UAE is considered among the least corrupt countries in the Middle East region; it was ranked 30 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 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, Shiite minorities and non-Muslims 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 the 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. The UAE has a dual system of Sharia (Islamic law) courts that handle family and criminal matters and secular courts that cover civil law. An estimated 40 to 45 percent of judges in the court system are noncitizen foreign nationals. Although the constitution bans torture, Sharia 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. The federal Ministry of Interior oversees police forces in the emirate, but each police force in each emirate enjoys a great deal of autonomy. The UAE criminal procedures code sets out specific guidelines for arrests and detentions. Prison conditions vary from emirate to emirate, with reports of overcrowding in some prisons in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

Discrimination against noncitizens, who make up the vast majority of the population and at least half of the workforce, occurs in many aspects of life, including employment and access to education, housing, and health care. Fewer than 20 percent of residents are UAE citizens.

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 forbidden to marry non-Muslims, and according to the interpretation of Sharia in the UAE, a brother inherits double what a sister inherits when a parent dies. 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 recent years. Sheikha Lubna al-Qasimi became the first woman minister in the UAE when she was appointed minister of the economy and planning in 2004. 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. According to the U.S. State Department 2005 Trafficking in Persons Report, the UAE has a serious problem with trafficking in persons, including foreigners lured into the country by employment opportunities but subjected to harsh working conditions, physical abuse, and the withholding of passports.

The UAE has received a great deal of attention for the country's use of young children from South Asia as jockeys in camel races. The country took a major step forward in addressing this problem by passing a new law banning the employment of children as camel jockeys. In April, the government announced a new law that banned jockeys under the age of 16 from participating in camel races. According to figures from the Ministry of Interior, around 3,000 children had been involved in camel racing, with 2,800 of them under the age of 10. In August, UNICEF reported that the UAE had begun implementing the law by repatriating a group of young Bangladeshi camel jockeys. In September, the Ministry of Interior issued new guidelines requiring camel farm owners to validate the ages of jockeys participating in races.