Freedom in the World
United Arab Emirates
In January 2010, a United Arab Emirates (UAE) court acquitted Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al-Nahyan of torturing an Afghani merchant in 2008. That same month, a British woman who had complained to Emirati police that she had been raped was instead charged with having illegal sex with her fiancé. The government in February began blocking access to the popular website UAE Hewar, an online platform for political and social discussion. In October, the government abandoned a controversial plan to limit messaging and email services for owners of Blackberry smartphones.
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.
In the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, the government cut ties with Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban regime and introduced reforms in its financial services and banking sectors to block the financing of terrorism. A 2004 law subsequently 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. 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 caught on videotape torturing an Afghani merchant in 2008. In January 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.
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.
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. The council serves only as an advisory body, reviewing proposed laws and questioning federal government ministers. The government failed to hold FNC elections scheduled for 2010.
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 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 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 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. The government continued to consider a restrictive press law in 2010. While the proposed law would remove prison sentences for press offenses, journalists would instead receive 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. Government officials continue to ban a variety of publications and internet websites. In February 2010, authorities began blocking access to the popular website UAE Hewar—an online platform for political and social discussions—for undisclosed reasons; it remained blocked through year’s end.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion. Islam is the official religion, and the majority of citizens are Sunni Muslims. Nevertheless, 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. Small political discussions in private homes are generally tolerated. However, there are limits on citizens’ ability to organize broader gatherings, and public meetings require government permits.All nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) must register with the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. Registered NGOs reportedly receive subsidies from the government. In July 2010, authorities arrested a small group of citizens for using their Blackberry smartphones to plan a protest against rising gasoline prices. The government subsequently announced plans to limit Blackberry services in the country, but abandoned the proposed restrictions in October under pressure from the U.S. government.
The UAE’s mostly foreign workers do not have the right to organize, bargain collectively, or strike. Although labor strikes are rare, workers periodically protest against unpaid wages and poor working and living conditions, but the government reportedly uses military force to crack down on such demonstrations. 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. Violence among the nonindigenous community has led to arbitrary arrests and detention, and prisons in the larger emirates are overcrowded. While the federal Interior Ministry 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, known as bidoon, who are unable to secure regular employment and face systemic discrimination. While the Interior Ministry has established registration centers for the bidoon to apply for citizenship, the government retains the final authority to approve or reject requests for citizenship and selection criteria remain unclear.
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. In January 2010, a British woman was arrested for having “illegal” sex with her fiancé and for drinking alcohol while visiting the UAE. Prior to her arrest, she had complained to authorities that she had been raped in a hotel bathroom in Dubai. The case was eventually dismissed after she and her fiancé produced documentation of their intent to marry. In June, an 18-year-old Emirati woman was sentenced to one year in prison after accusing six men of gang-raping her.
Women are underrepresented in government, though they have received appointments at various levels in recent years. The prime minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, added two new women to the 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.In March 2010, theorganization Anti-Slavery International posted images that allegedly presented evidence of the continued use of children as jockeys in the popular sport of camel racing, a practice that was officially banned in 2005.