Freedom in the World
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United Arab Emirates
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
In 2013, the ongoing suppression by the government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) culminated in the trial of 94 activists, students, academics, journalists, lawyers, and judges accused of being members of the Islamic group Al-Islah. The widely criticized trial resulted in 69 defendants being convicted and receiving sentences ranging from 7 to 15 years in prison. The UAE also supported a crackdown on Islamists in Egypt by joining Saudi Arabia in pledging $8 billion in economic aid after the Egyptian military overthrew the democratically-elected Muslim Brotherhood government.
Political Rights: 8 / 40 [Key]
A. Electoral Process: 1 / 12
In the United Arab Emirates, 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. These 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.
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.
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.
B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 2 / 16
Political parties are banned in the UAE. The allocation of positions in the government is determined largely by tribal loyalties and economic power. In December 2011, 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. Since 2011, the UAE has aggressively cracked down on suspected members of Al-Islah—a group formed in the UAE in 1974 to peacefully advocate for democratic reform—accusing them of being foreign agents of the Muslim Brotherhood intent on violently overthrowing the government. The crackdown culminated in 69 alleged members of the group being convicted and sentenced to prison terms ranging from 7 to 15 years.
C. Functioning of Government: 2 / 12
The UAE is considered one of the least corrupt countries in the Middle East. It was ranked 69 out of 177 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index. In April 2009, ABC News publicized a video filmed in 2004 that showed Issa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the brother of President Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, 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 somewhat implausible argument that al-Nahyan had been drugged and therefore committed the crime unknowingly.
Discretionary Political Rights Question A: 3 / 0
Citizens have limited opportunities to express their interests through traditional consultative sessions.
Civil Liberties: 13 / 60 (-1)
D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 4 / 16
Although the UAE’s constitution provides for some freedom of expression, the government restricts this right in practice. UAE Federal Law No. 15 of 1980 for Printed Matter and Publications regulates all aspects of the media and is considered one of the most restrictive press laws in the Arab world. The law 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. The UAE has three media free zones (MFZ)—areas in which foreign media outlets produce print and broadcast material intended for foreign audiences—located in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Ras al-Khaimah. Although these areas are subject to UAE media laws, the press operates with relative freedom.
In 2013, local media showed bias in favor of the government in the trial of the 94 alleged members of Al-Islah. International media was banned from the courtroom during the proceedings. Journalist Khalifah Rabia was arrested in July for reporting allegations on his Twitter feed that members of the so-called UAE 94 were tortured by security officials. Shortly after his arrest, 24.ae, a television network affiliated with the government, accused Rabia of having terrorist ties. In July, the UAE’s Telecommunications Regulator attempted to censor the U.S.-based Arabic news website Watan.com by threatening legal action against its Germany-based internet hosting service. Furthermore, the web site’s creator, Nezam Mahdawi, has reportedly been subject to threats and intimidation by UAE authorities over Watan’s coverage of the UAE 94 trial.
In 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. During the UAE 94 trial, family members of the defendants who posted trial updates on Twitter were arrested and charged under the cyber law. Abdullah al-Hadidi, the son of one of the defendants, was arrested and sentenced to 10 months in prison for posting “false news” on Twitter. Several other family members of the defendants, along with activists, were arrested under the cyber law for tweeting about the trial. Waleed al-Shehhi was also convicted of tweeting trial updates under the cyber law and was sentenced to 2 years in prison and fined 200,000 Euros.
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. Several Western universities have opened satellite campuses in the UAE, although faculties take care to not criticize the UAE government or its policies out of fear of losing funding. 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.
E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 2 / 12
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 2012, two prominent human rights lawyers, Mohamed al-Roken and Mohamed al-Mansoori, were arrested along with other activists under suspicion of “committing crimes that harm state security.” They stood trial in 2013 along with 92 other activists, lawyers, judges, students, and journalists charged with being members of Al-Islah. Al-Mansoori and al-Roken were among the 69 defendants convicted, and each received a 10-year prison sentence. In June, a combination of 30 Egyptians and Emiratis were arrested and charged with setting up an illegal branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Their trial was still pending at year’s end.
The UAE’s mostly foreign workers do not have the right to organize, bargain collectively, or strike. Expatriate workers can be banned from working in the UAE if they try to leave their employer prior to at least two years of service. Workers occasionally protest against unpaid wages and poor working and living conditions, but such demonstrations are frequently broken up. In May 2013, thousands of laborers working for the Emirati construction company Arabtec went on strike in Dubai, calling for an increase in wages and demanding back pay for overtime. The strikes ended after five days. Hundreds of the striking laborers were deported and there were reports of a violent police crackdown in the worker camps.
F. Rule of Law: 3 / 16 (-1)
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 2012, the UAE arrested Mohammed Saeed Ziab Abdouly, president of the penal circuit in the Appellate Court of Abu Dhabi. Al-Zyoudi was acquitted in the UAE 94 trial, while Abdouly received a 10-year prison sentence. The trial of the UAE 94 was widely regarded as unfair and in violation of international standards. The International Commission of Jurists issued a report in October that called the trial “manifestly unfair” and criticized the proceedings for various irregularities, including not giving the defendants expedient or adequate access to legal counsel during interrogations, holding the defendants at length in unofficial detention centers, holding some defendants in solitary confinement for over 200 days, and not adequately investigating allegations of torture.
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. At least two foreign nationals were detained by security forces in 2013. In February, in a separate case from the UAE 94 trial, Qatari doctor Mahmood al-Jaidah was arrested and detained without charge for seven months until he was ultimately charged with being a supporter of Al-Islah in November. Salah Yafai, a member of the Bahraini branch of Al-Islah, was arrested at the Dubai airport in April and was held in an unknown location before being released in June.
G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 4 / 16
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.
In March 2013, a Norwegian woman who was raped while on a business trip in Dubai was arrested and charged with having extramarital sex, consuming alcohol, and perjury, and sentenced to 16 months in prison. An international outcry led to her charges being dismissed. The charges against her attacker, who received a lesser 13-month sentence for having extramarital sex and consuming alcohol, were also dismissed. Despite a 2006 antitrafficking law and the opening of new shelters for female victims, the government has failed to adequately address human trafficking.
X = Score Received
Y = Best Possible Score
Z = Change from Previous Year