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)
In 2008, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) amended its judicial law, becoming the second country in the Gulf to allow women to serve as prosecutors and judges. A draft press law under consideration at the end of the year would reintroduce prison sentences for journalists who criticize the government or the country’s economy. During 2008, foreign workers continued to violently protest low wages and poor working and living conditions in the country, although the government took some steps to register the country’s large population of stateless workers
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 the emirates’ seven rulers in September. Of the college’s 6,689 members, 1,189 were women. Of the 20 elected members of the council, one was a woman. The UAE government appointed the remaining 20 members, including 8 women, in February 2007.
In January 2008, al-Maktoum appointed his son Hamdan the crown prince of Dubai. In February, the prime minister appointed four women as ministers in a cabinet reshuffle, doubling the number of women serving in the executive.
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. In February 2008, Abu Dhabi announced that it would spend over $20 billion dollars over the next eight years to build a solar powered Masdar City, a carbon free and car free residential and commercial city. Meanwhile, In July, the UAE canceled Iraq’s debt.
The UAE’s ongoing real estate boom has generated considerable labor unrest, and the country’s mostly foreign workforce continued to protest poor working and housing conditions in 2008. Nevertheless, the government took some positive steps in September and October to register the country’s large population of stateless workers.
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 35 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 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. In 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. In2008, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved a new draft bill abolishing jail sentences for journalists, but it was not adopted. At the end of the year, the government was considering a more restrictive press law that will reintroduce prison terms for journalists who “disparage” government officials or write stories that “harm the country’s economy.” The UAE continues to restrict speech in the media, art, and publishing, as well as in Emirati schools. Government officials continue to ban a variety of publications and internet websites.
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. Labor disturbances continued in 2008. As many as 1,500 foreign workers protested poor working and living conditions in Sharjah in March, setting fire to vehicles and damaging property. Violent unrest continued through July and August with the government reportedly using military force to crack down on protests.
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. In March 2008, the UAE amended the judicial law to allow women to serve as prosecutors and judges. In October, Abu Dhabi swore in the country’s first woman judge, Khulood Ahmed Jawan Al Dhaheri. Although the constitution bans torture, there is compelling evidence that members of the royal family and the country’s police have used torture against political rivals and business associates. 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 forces in each emirate enjoy 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 face systemic discrimination. In September and October 2008, the Ministry of Interior coordinated an effort to officially register the bidoon, setting up registration centers in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah and Ajman where registrants can apply for citizenship. The government retains the final authority to approve or reject requests for citizenship and it remains unclear what the criteria for selection are.
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 February Prime Minister al-Maktoum added two new women to the country’s cabinet, doubling their number. Sheikh Sultan al-Qasimi, ruler of the emirate of Sharjah, has appointed five women to his consultative council. For the first time, the country appointed women as foreign ambassadors, where they are serving in Sweden and Spain.
Foreigners, who continue to be lured into the country by employment opportunities, are often 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 2007, the government established a national organization to fight trafficking, although the results have been mixed. Still, the UAE remained on the Tier 2 Watch List in the U.S. State Department’s 2008 Trafficking in Persons Report for failing to adequately address these problems.