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 received a downward trend arrow due to increased arrests of activists, lawyers, and judges calling for political reform; the passage of a highly restrictive internet law that punishes online activism and free expression; and the dismissal and deportation of academics who were critical of the government or its policies.
The United Arab Emirates increased its efforts to suppress political dissent throughout 2012, arresting scores of activists and imprisoning many without charge while deporting others. A highly restrictive cyber law was passed in November giving authorities broader power to crackdown on online criticism of the government and on activists using the internet or social media to organize demonstrations.
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, which was made permanent in 1996, 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 (FNC) 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 April 2009, ABC News publicized a video filmed in 2004 that showed Issa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the UAE president’s brother, torturing an Afghan grain dealer, and the Justice Department subsequently launched an investigation into the actions depicted in the video. In January 2010, a court acquitted al-Nahyan of charges of torture and rape stemming from the publication of the video; al-Nahyan’s lawyer said the court had agreed with the defense’s argument that al-Nahyan had been drugged and therefore committed the crime unknowingly.
While the UAE has not experienced the kinds of demonstrations that characterized the Arab Spring elsewhere, activists began calling for greater political rights and a move toward a more democratic political system in early 2011. Authorities responded by arresting the most outspoken pro-reform voices. In March 2011, the UAE provided support to 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 seven men affiliated with the Islamist group the Association for Reform and Guidance, or al-Islah; the seven men had signed a petition earlier in the year calling for legislative reform and free elections.
Throughout 2012, the UAE’s harsh response to pro-democracy activism continued as authorities, citing vaguely defined security concerns as justification, arrested over 70 human rights activists, political reformers, bloggers, judges, and lawyers, holding many of them without charge or access to legal representation. Several nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) whose work focuses on empowering civil society were expelled from the country, as were academics critical of the regime’s policies of suppression of free expression. The UAE also passed a restrictive cyber law in November.
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 40-member FNC serves only as an advisory body, reviewing proposed laws and questioning federal government ministers. Half of the FNC’s members were 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. In September 2011, the UAE held elections to the FNC after having expanded the electoral college to just over 129,000 members; however, only about 36,000 voters participated.
Political parties are banned in the UAE. 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 27 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Although the UAE’s constitution provides for some freedom of expression, the government restricts this right in practice. The 1980 Printing and Publishing Law applies to all media and prohibits criticism of the government, allies, and religion, and also bans 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.
In November 2012, the UAE passed a cyber law giving authorities more latitude to crack down on activists using the internet or social media to criticize the government or to organize demonstrations. The law allows for the imprisonment of anyone who publishes material to the internet in which they insult the state, organize antigovernment protests, or publicize information deemed a threat to national security. Offenders can also be fined as much as $272,000.
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. In 2012, several academics critical of UAE government policies were dismissed from their positions and either arrested or expelled from the country. The RAND Corporation, a U.S.-based research institute, was forced to close its Abu Dhabi office in December 2012.
The government places restrictions on freedoms of assembly and association. Public meetings require government permits. NGOs must register with the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, and registered NGOs receive subsidies from the government. After members of two prominent teachers’ and lawyers’ associations publicly pledged support for democratic reforms 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 were subsequently arrested and convicted of insulting the country’s leaders, though they were pardoned by the president in November 2011. Seven signatories had their citizenship stripped in late 2011, leaving them stateless and without legal documentation. In March 2012, the UAE forced the closures of the offices of two NGOs: the National Democratic Institute in Dubai and Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung in Abu Dhabi. In July, two prominent human rights lawyers, Mohamed al-Roken, who had previously defended UAE activists, and Mohamed al-Mansoori were arrested along with other activists under suspicion of “committing crimes that harm state security.” They remained in detention as of year’s end.
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, but such demonstrations are frequently broken up.
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. As part of its crackdown on dissent, the UAE arrested former judge Khamis Saeed al-Zyoudi in September 2012. In October, the UAE arrested Mohammed Saeed Ziab Abdouly, president of the penal circuit in the Appellate Court of Abu Dhabi. Both men were in detention at year’s end. While the federal Interior Ministry oversees police forces in the country, each emirate’s force enjoys considerable autonomy. Arbitrary arrests and detention have been reported, particularly of foreign residents. 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. Stateless residents, known as bidoon, are unable to secure regular employment and face systemic discrimination. While the Interior Ministry has established methods for stateless persons to apply for citizenship, the government uses unclear criteria in approving or rejecting such requests. Under UAE’s kafala system, a migrant worker’s legal status is tied to an employer’s sponsorship; foreign workers are often exploited and subjected to harsh working conditions, physical abuse, and the withholding of passports with little to no access to legal recourse.
The constitution does not address gender equality. Muslim women are forbidden to marry non-Muslims and receive smaller inheritances than men. Women are underrepresented in government, though they have received government appointments at various levels in recent years, including to the cabinet, and there are several women in the FNC. Despite a 2006 antitrafficking law and the opening of new shelters for female victims, the government has failed to adequately address human trafficking.