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)
The United Arab Emirates’ civil liberties rating improved from 6 to 5 because of improvements in freedom of association.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) in December 2006 held the first-ever elections for half of the 40-member Federal National Council. However, only a small electoral college was permitted to vote. Also during the year, the government formed a new Higher National Security Council to coordinate the federation’s security policy, and proposed significant labor reforms amid destructive protests by workers. The legal changes would allow collective bargaining and limited union activity for the first time.
For most of its history, the territory of the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—a federation of seven emirates formerly known as the Trucial States—was controlled by various competing tribal forces. Attacks on shipping off the coast of this territory led the British to mount military expeditions against the tribes in the nineteenth century. A series of treaties followed, and in 1853 the local leaders signed a truce agreement with Britain that led to a decline in the raids on shipping. Though never formal British colonies, the territories were provided protection by the British, and leaders of the emirates often referred their disputes to Britain for mediation.
In 1971, Britain announced that it was ending its treaty relationships with the seven emirates of the Trucial States, as well as with nearby 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 emirate.
The government in 2001 cracked down on corruption, arresting some senior officials. In the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, the government introduced reforms in its financial services and banking sectors to block the financing of terrorism.
In January 2006, Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid al-Maktoum, ruler of the emirate of Dubai and vice president and prime minister of the UAE, died while visiting Australia. His brother and Dubai’s crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, succeeded him in both the emirate and the federal posts. This shift did not result in any meaningful or substantive changes in the UAE’s power structure, with the ruling families maintaining a firm grip on political power.
In March, state-owned Dubai Ports World met with scrutiny from the U.S. Congress over an international acquisition deal that would have allowed it to manage six major U.S. ports. The lawmakers’ security concerns ultimately forced the company to jettison the U.S. portion of the deal. Despite the negative fallout from the dispute, the United States and the UAE continued talks on a bilateral free trade agreement. However, U.S. opposition to the UAE’s boycott of Israel threatened to hamper progress on the deal.
Also in March, the government proposed amendments to the 1980 labor law that would allow workers to engage in limited unionization, collective bargaining, and strikes for the first time. The announcement came after foreign construction workers mounted violent protests against poor living and working conditions.
The government in June approved the creation of a Higher National Security Council, intended to manage and coordinate national security and the economy. The council would be chaired by the president of the UAE, with the vice president and prime minister serving as vice chairman. Other members of the council included the deputy supreme commander of the armed forces, the defense minister, the foreign minister, and the interior minister.
The first-ever elections for half of the 40-seat, largely advisory Federal National Council were held in December 2006. However, participation was limited to a small electoral college appointed by each emirate’s rulers in September. Of the college’s 6,689 members, 1,189 were women. Dr. Amal al-Qubaisi from Abu Dhabi was the only woman elected to the council. However, the 20 appointed members of the body included eight women.
In contrast to many of its neighbors, the UAE has achieved some success in diversifying its economy to reduce dependency on the petroleum sector. The country has built a leading free-trade zone in Dubai and a major manufacturing center in Sharjah, and has invested resources to develop its profile as a leading center for tourism in the region.
The UAE is not an electoral democracy. All decisions about political leadership rest with the dynastic rulers of the seven emirates, who form what is known as the Federal Supreme Council, 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 20 delegates appointed by the seven leaders every two years. In December 2006, the UAE held its first-ever elections for the other 20 seats. However, participation was limited to an appointed electoral college of 6,689 UAE citizens. The Federal National Council serves only as an advisory body, reviewing proposed laws and questioning federal government ministers.
The UAE does not have political parties. Instead, the allocation of positions in the government is largely determined by tribal loyalties and economic power. The emirate of Abu Dhabi, the major oil producer in the UAE, has controlled the federation’s presidency since its inception. Citizens have a limited opportunity to express their interests through traditional consultative sessions.
The UAE is considered one of the least corrupt countries in the Middle East region. It was ranked 31 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Although the UAE’s constitution provides for some freedom of expression, the government severely restricts this right in practice. 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.” Consequently, journalists commonly practice self-censorship, and the leading media outlets 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. In February 2006, the government passed a 29-point law on internet-based crime, covering crimes such as the forgery of government documents, the use of the internet for exploitative ends, and the abuse of Sharia (Islamic law). Internet access is widely available, though there have been reports that a leading internet service provider, the government-owned Etisalat, sometimes blocks sites deemed morally objectionable.
The UAE’s constitution provides for freedom of religion. Islam is the official religion, and the majority of citizens are Sunni Muslims. However, the minority Shiite Muslim sect 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. In February 2006, a foreign lecturer at a university was dismissed for showing and discussing controversial Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad.
The government places limits on freedoms 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.
In March 2006, the government proposed new labor legislation to address labor disputes and protests that had rocked the country. The protests were in response to the poor working conditions and poor treatment of foreign workers. The unrest brought unwanted attention to the UAE as its economy boomed and trade negotiations with the United States continued. No unions had previously existed in the country, but in a concession by the government, the new law would allow workers to have one collective union with separate representatives for each industry. In July 2003, the government had issued a ban on the long-standing practice of employers forcing foreign workers 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, which handle family and criminal matters, and secular courts, which cover civil law. Although the constitution bans torture, Sharia courts sometimes impose flogging sentences for individuals found guilty of drug use, prostitution, or adultery. Overcrowding is reported in the prisons of the larger emirates, and other conditions vary by jurisdiction. Recent violence among the non-indigenous community has led to arbitrary arrests and detention. 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 the Interior oversees police forces in the country, but the police force in each emirate enjoys a great deal of autonomy.
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 government announced in October 2006 that it planned to naturalize 10,000 people who had been living without citizenship for more than 30 years. Often known as the bidoon, or stateless people, they are eligible for naturalization if they have lived permanently in the UAE since before the creation of the federation, possess no documents proving former nationality, and have no criminal record.
Dubai enacted a law in March 2006 that allowed citizens of the UAE and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries to own land and property in the emirate. Citizens of non-GCC countries could own land only in approved areas..
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. Muslim 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 signs of limited openings, 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, ruler of the emirate of Sharjah, has appointed five women to his consultative council.
Human trafficking and forced labor remain serious problems in the UAE. According to the U.S. State Department’s 2006 Trafficking in Persons Report, foreigners are lured into the country by employment opportunities and then subjected to harsh working conditions, physical abuse, and the withholding of passports. However, the government enacted an antitrafficking law in November 2006, providing penalties for those convicted of human trafficking for the purpose of sexual or economic exploitation. The State Department that year placed the UAE on its Tier 2 watch list for trafficking in persons, up from Tier 3, the worst ranking. The UAE has received a great deal of attention for its use of young children from South Asia as jockeys in camel races. It took a major step forward in addressing this problem by passing a new law in 2005 that banned the employment of children as camel jockeys.