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)
The United Arab Emirates’ civil liberties rating declined from 5 to 6 due to the government’s arrest of pro-reform political activists, its disbanding of the prominent professional advisory boards of certain nongovernmental organizations, and its decision to strip citizenship from notable Islamist leaders.
The United Arab Emirates continued to crack down on advocates of political change throughout 2011. After more than 100 intellectuals and activists submitted a petition to the country’s rulers calling for reforms, five prominent democracy activists were arrested and convicted of insulting the country’s leadership, though they were pardoned by the president in November. Meanwhile, the government replaced the elected boards of two civil society organizations with appointed councils.
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.
After the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, the government strengthened antiterrorism legislation, including introducing reforms in the financial services and banking sectors to block the financing of terrorism.
In 2006, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum succeeded his late brother as ruler of the emirate of Dubai and prime minister of the UAE. The first-ever elections for 20 of the 40-seat, largely advisory Federal National Council were held that year, with participation limited to a small electoral college appointed by the emirates’ seven rulers. 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 current UAE president, after he was videotaped torturing an Afghani merchant in 2008. In 2010, all charges against al-Nahyan were dropped after a court ruled that he had been drugged and therefore had committed the crime unknowingly. The court awarded the Afghani victim approximately $2,700 in compensation.
While the UAE did not experience the kinds of demonstrations that characterized the Arab Spring elsewhere, in March and April 2011, activists began calling for greater political rights and a move toward a more democratic political system. Authorities responded by arresting the most outspoken pro-reform voices. In March, the UAE, along with Saudi Arabia, provided support for the military force that helped crush Bahrain’s pro-democracy movement. In December, authorities cited security concerns in their decision to revoke the citizenship of six men, including the scholar Mohammed Abdel-Razzaq al-Siddiq. Those targeted were affiliated with the Islamic Reform and Social Guidance Association. While the UAE claimed they had links to extremists, critics charged that their punishment was more likely the result of their having been outspoken in calling for political reform; the six men had signed a petition earlier in the year in favor of legislative reform and free elections.
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.
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 emirate of Abu Dhabi, the major oil producer in the UAE, has controlled the federation’s presidency since its inception.
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. The council serves only as an advisory body, reviewing proposed laws and questioning federal government ministers. In September 2011, the UAE held elections to the FNC after having expanded the electoral college to 129,000-members; however, only 36,000 voters participated.
There are no political parties in the country; the allocation of positions in the government is determined largely by tribal loyalties and economic power. Citizens have limited opportunities 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 28 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 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 print and broadcast media is produced for audiences outside of the UAE with relatively few restrictions. Throughout 2011, the government continued to consider a restrictive press law that would replace prison sentences with fines of up to $136,000 for articles deemed harmful to UAE’s economy and up to $1.35 million for those considered “insulting” to the ruling family or government. The draft law would also force journalists to reveal their sources. The law had not been adopted by year’s end. Government officials ban a variety of publications and internet websites. In April 2011, the government banned most small businesses and individuals from using secure and encrypted e-mail and internet settings on their mobile phones, allowing authorities to access most private correspondence.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion. Islam is the official religion, and the majority of citizens are Sunni Muslims. 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 restrictions on freedoms of assembly and association. Public meetings require government permits. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) must register with the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, and registered NGOs reportedly receive subsidies from the government. After members of two prominent teachers’ and lawyers’ associations publicly pledged support for democratic reform in the UAE, authorities in April 2011 dissolved their elected boards of directors and replaced them with pro-regime sympathizers. In March 2011, over 130 intellectuals and activists signed a petition calling for political reforms, including the expansion of legislative powers for the FNC. Five of the country’s most outspoken reform advocates—Nasser bin Gaith, Ahmed Mansoor, Fahad Salim Dalk, Hassan Ali Al-Khamis, and Ahmed Abdul Khaleq—were subsequently arrested and convicted of insulting the country’s leaders, though they were pardoned by the president in November.
The UAE’s mostly foreign workers do not have the right to organize, bargain collectively, or strike. Workers occasionally protest against unpaid wages and poor working and living conditions, to which the government reportedly responds with military force.
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 address family and criminal matters, and secular courts, which cover civil law. Sharia courts sometimes impose flogging sentences for drug use, prostitution, and adultery. While the federal Interior Ministry oversees police forces in the country, each emirate’s force enjoys considerable autonomy. Violence within the nonindigenous community has led to arbitrary arrests and detention. Prisons in the larger emirates are overcrowded.
Discrimination against noncitizens and foreign workers, who comprise more than 80 percent of the UAE’s population, is common. Foreign workers are often subjected to harsh working conditions, physical abuse, and the withholding of passports. Stateless residents, known as bidoon, are unable to secure regular employment and face systemic discrimination. While the Interior Ministry has established methods for the bidoon to apply for citizenship, the government uses unclear criteria in approving or rejecting requests for citizenship.
The constitution does not address gender equality. Muslim women are forbidden to marry non-Muslims and are eligible for only half of their brother’s inheritance. Women are underrepresented in government, though they have received appointments at various levels in recent years. In 2008, two new women were added to the cabinet, and Abu Dhabi swore in the country’s first woman judge after the judicial law was amended to allow women to serve as prosecutors and judges. Despite a 2006 antitrafficking law and the opening of two shelters for female victims, the government has failed to adequately address human trafficking. In 2010, Anti-Slavery International posted images of alleged child jockeys used in the popular sport of camel racing, a practice that was officially banned in 2005.