United Arab Emirates | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

United Arab Emirates

United Arab Emirates

Freedom in the World 2010

2010 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


In May 2009, authorities of the United Arab Emirates detained a member of the ruling family who was caught on videotape allegedly torturing an Afghani man. In July, the Abu Dhabi Federal Court of Appeal ruled to suspend the newspaper Emarat al-Yawm for an article critical of the ruling family. Meanwhile, the country’s economy struggled as a result of the global economic crisis. In December, Abu Dhabi provided Dubai a $10 billion bailout to help ease the latter’s debt crisis and stave off financial collapse.

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 2004, new legislation established stricter punishments for crimes involving 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. The UAE government appointed the remaining 20 members in February 2007.
In May 2009, UAE police detained Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, brother of the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, after he was caught on videotape torturing an Afghani merchant in 2008. He has been implicated in 25 additional incidents. Al-Nahyan’s case went to trial in late 2009 and remained before the courts at year’s end.

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 spite of these efforts, however, the UAE has suffered from the recent global economic downturn. Property values have plummeted, and thousands of foreigners who had been working in the real estate and financial sectors have fled the country or been laid off. In December, Dubai received a $10 billion bailout package from Abu Dhabi to help the state-owned Dubai World repay a $4.1 billion bond.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

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 by 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 30 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Although the UAE’s constitution provides for some freedom of expression, the government has historically restricted this right in practice. The 1980 Printing and Publishing Law 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. Government officials continue to ban a variety of publications and internet websites. In 2009, the government continued its consideration of a restrictive press law that will reintroduce prison terms for journalists who “disparage” government officials or write stories that “harm the country’s economy.” The draft law also threatens fines of up to $136,000 for commentary on the poor economy and up to $1.35 million for articles “insulting” to the ruling family or government. In July, the Abu Dhabi Federal Court of Appeal suspended the newspaper Emarat al-Yawmfor three weeks and fined its editor $5,445 for an October 2006 article that claimed some of the ruling family’s thoroughbred race-horses were given steroids.
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. In March 2009, the Minister of State and Foreign Affairs, who also heads the National Human Rights Commission, rejected several recommendations by the United Nations for improving religious freedom in the UAE, including protections for citizens to convert or change religious beliefs. 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. In March 2009, Dubai outlawed public dancing, kissing, and the playing of loud music. 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’s mostly foreign workers do not have the right to organize, bargain collectively, or strike. Workers continue to protest poor working and living conditions, with the government reportedly using military force to crack down on demonstrations. However, after hosting a joint UAE-United Nations conference on labor and human rights in May, the country’s minister of labor committed to expand efforts to ensure that workers be paid fairly and in a timely manner as well as to improve housing standards. Amidst the global recession, a growing number of expatriate workers were dismissed from their jobs and sent home.
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, members of the royal family and the country’s police have allegedly used torture against political rivals and business associates. Sharia courts sometimes impose flogging sentences for drug use, prostitution, and adultery. Recent violence among the nonindigenous community has led to arbitrary arrests and detention, and prisons of the larger emirates are overcrowded. While the federal Ministry of the Interior oversees police forces in the country, each emirate’s force enjoys a great deal of autonomy.
Discrimination against noncitizens and foreign workers occurs in many aspects of life. Fewer than 20 percent of the country’s residents are UAE citizens. There are also more than 100,000 stateless residents, often known as bidoon, who are unable to secure regular employment and face systemic discrimination. In 2008, the Ministry of Interior set up registration centers where the bidoon could apply for citizenship. However, the government retains the final authority to approve or reject requests for citizenship and selection criteria remain unclear. Hundreds of Lebanese Shiites and Palestinians were expelled by the government between August and October 2009 for reportedly refusing to spy on their fellow countrymen in the UAE.
The constitution does not specifically mention gender equality, and women’s social, economic, and legal rights are not always protected. Muslim women are forbidden to marry non-Muslims and are eligible for only one half of their brother’s inheritance. Women are underrepresented in government, though women have received appointments at various levels in recent years. The prime minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, added two new women to the country’s cabinet in 2008, and Sheikh Sultan al-Qasimi, ruler of the emirate of Sharjah, has appointed five women to his consultative council. Abu Dhabi swore in the country’s first woman judge in October 2008 after the judicial law was amended to allow women to serve as prosecutors and judges.
Foreigners lured into the country by employment opportunities are often subjected to harsh working conditions, physical abuse, and the withholding of passports. Despite government efforts to combat human trafficking—including a 2006 antitrafficking law and the opening of two shelters for women victims—the government has failed to adequately address the problem.