Freedom in the World
United Arab Emirates
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, issued a decree lifting restrictions on freedom of expression in September 2007. He called for a new press law and said that journalists would no longer face imprisonment for offenses related to their work. Despite the decree, government officials continue to harass journalists and ban publications. As a result of widespread labor unrest in 2006, the government also issued a new draft labor law in 2007, but the proposed legislation would still bar workers from forming unions, striking, and engaging in collective bargaining. Worker unrest continued during the year, with massive strikes rocking the country in October.
Attacks on shipping off the coast of what is now the United Arab Emirates (UAE) led the British to mount military expeditions against the local tribal rulers in the early 19th century. A series of treaties followed, including a long-term maritime truce in 1853 and an 1892 pact giving Britain control over foreign policy. The seven sheikhdoms of the area subsequently became known as the Trucial States.
In 1971, Britain announced that it was ending its treaty relationships in the region, and six of the seven Trucial States formed the UAE federation. Ras al-Khaimah, the seventh state, joined in 1972. The provisional constitution left significant power in the hands of each emirate.
The government in 2001 cracked down on corruption, arresting some senior officials. In the wake of that year’s 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 Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum succeeded his brother as ruler of the emirate of Dubai and prime minister of the UAE. His ascension did not result in any substantive changes in the UAE’s political balance, with the ruling families maintaining a firm grip on power.
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 emirates’ seven rulers in September. Of the college’s 6,689 members, 1,189 were women. One woman was elected to the council. The UAE government appointed the remaining 20 members of the council, including eight women, in February 2007.
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 it has invested resources to expand its tourism industry. However, this economic development has been accompanied by ongoing worker unrest, prompting the government to issue a new draft labor law in 2007.
The UAE is not an electoral democracy. All decisions about political leadership rest with the dynastic rulers of the seven emirates, who form the Federal Supreme Council, the highest executive and legislative body in the country. The 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 (FNC), half of which was elected for the first time in 2006. Voting was restricted to a 6,689-member electoral college chosen by the seven rulers. The other half of the council is directly appointed by the government for two-year terms. UAE officials have said they intend to grant universal suffrage for the 2010 FNC elections. The council serves only as an advisory body, reviewing proposed laws and questioning federal government ministers.
There are no political parties in the country. 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. It was ranked 34 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Although the UAE’s constitution provides for some freedom of expression, the government has historically restricted 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. Moreover, in September 2007, the prime minister called for a new press law and issued an executive decree stipulating that journalists would no longer face imprisonment for violations linked to their work. The application of the decree has been uneven, however. In November, the Arab Network for Human Rights issued a statement criticizing continuing restrictions on free speech in the media, art, and publishing, as well as in Emirati schools. Government officials continue to ban a variety of publications. Internet access is widely available, though there have been reports that a leading internet service provider, the state-owned Etisalat, sometimes blocks sites deemed morally objectionable.
The 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.
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.
Following widespread labor unrest in 2006, the Labor Ministry published a draft of a new labor law in 2007, but it fell short of satisfying the demands of most workers. Its provisions would not give the UAE’s mostly foreign workers the right to organize, bargain collectively, or strike. Meanwhile, labor disturbances continued in 2007. Thousands of South Asian workers clashed with riot police in October while protesting low wages, poor working conditions, and poor housing. As many as 4,000 of the demonstrators were deported. In June, the government had offered free one-way airline tickets to foreign workers who wished to return to their home countries. Around 200,000 workers submitted requests to leave.
The judiciary is not independent, with court rulings subject to review by the political leadership. The legal system is divided into 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 drug use, prostitution, and adultery. Overcrowding is reported in the prisons of the larger emirates, and other prison conditions vary by jurisdiction. Recent violence among the nonindigenous community has led to arbitrary arrests and detention. In July 2004, new legislation established stricter punishments for crimes involving terrorism. 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 occurs in many aspects of life, including employment, education, housing, and health care. Fewer than 20 percent of the country’s residents are UAE citizens. In addition to foreign nationals, there are more than 100,000 stateless residents, often known as bidoon, who are unable to secure regular employment and have difficulty obtaining adequate health care. In March 2007 the government naturalized 1,294 people who had been living without citizenship for over 30 years. Nonetheless, the government’s naturalization initiative fell far short of addressing the systemic nature of the problem, and most stateless residents continue to face discrimination.
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 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.
Foreigners continue to be lured into the country by employment opportunities and then subjected to harsh working conditions, physical abuse, and the withholding of passports. The government enacted an antitrafficking law in 2006, providing penalties for those convicted of human trafficking for the purpose of sexual or economic exploitation. In May 2007 the government established a national organization to fight trafficking, although the results have been mixed. In December, Dubai authorities arrested over 300 people involved in a prostitution ring as part of the country’s anti-trafficking measures. Still, the UAE remained on the Tier 2 Watch List in the U.S. State Department’s 2007 Trafficking in Persons Report for failing to adequately address these problems. The authorities have taken more effective measures to ban the employment of children as jockeys in camel races.