Human rights in the United Arab Emirates

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politics and government of
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According to human rights organizations, the UAE is violating a number of fundamental practices. For example, the UAE does not have democratically-elected institutions and citizens do not have the right to change their government or to form political parties. There are reports of forced disappearances in the UAE, many foreign nationals and Emirati citizens have been abducted by the UAE government and illegally detained in undisclosed locations.[1][2] In numerous instances, the UAE government has tortured people in custody and has denied their citizens the right to a speedy trial and access to counsel during official investigations.[1][2]

Flogging and stoning are legal forms of judicial punishment in the UAE due to Sharia courts.[3] The government restricts freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and the local media is censored in order to avoid criticizing the government, government officials or royal families. Freedom of association and freedom of religion are also curtailed.

Despite being elected to the UN Council, the UAE has not signed most international human-rights and labor-rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, and the Convention against Torture. Journalists from overseas frequently record and document human rights abuses that occur within the UAE.

Sharia law[edit]

Flogging and stoning[edit]

The UAE's judicial system is derived from the civil law system and Sharia law. The court system consists of civil courts and Sharia courts. According to Human Rights Watch, UAE's civil and criminal courts apply elements of Sharia law, codified into its criminal code and family law, in a way which discriminates against women.[4]

Flogging is a punishment for criminal offences such as adultery, premarital sex and alcohol consumption.[5][6][7] Due to Sharia courts, flogging is legal with sentences ranging from 80 to 200 lashes.[5][8][9] Verbal abuse pertaining to a person's sexual honour is illegal and punishable by 80 lashes.[10] Between 2007 and 2014, many people in the UAE were sentenced to 100 lashes.[11][12][13][14][15][16][17][18][19] More recently in 2015, two men were sentenced to 80 lashes for hitting and insulting a woman.[20] In 2014, an expat in Abu Dhabi was sentenced to 80 lashes for alcohol consumption or raping a toddler.[21] Alcohol consumption for Muslims is illegal and punishable by 80 lashes, many Muslims have been sentenced to 80 lashes for alcohol consumption.[22][23][24][25][26][27][28][29][30][31][32] Sometimes 40 lashes are given.[33] Illicit sex is sometimes penalized by 60 lashes.[34][35][36] 80 lashes is the standard amount for anyone sentenced to flogging in several emirates.[37] Sharia courts have penalized domestic workers with floggings.[38] In October 2013, a Filipino housemaid was sentenced to 100 lashes for illegitimate pregnancy.[39] Drunk-driving is strictly illegal and punishable by 80 lashes, many expats have been sentenced to 80 lashes for drunk-driving.[40][41][42][43][44][45][46] In Abu Dhabi, people have been sentenced to 80 lashes for kissing in public.[47] Under UAE law, premarital sex is punishable by 100 lashes.[48]

Stoning is a legal punishment in the UAE. In May 2014, an Asian housemaid was sentenced to death by stoning in Abu Dhabi.[49][50][51] In 2006, an expatriate was sentenced to death by stoning for committing adultery.[52] Between 2009 and 2013, several people were sentenced to death by stoning.[14][53][54] Abortion is illegal and punishable by a maximum penalty of 100 lashes and up to five years in prison.[55] In recent years, several people have retracted their guilty plea in illicit sex cases after being sentenced to stoning or 100 lashes.[56][57] The punishment for committing adultery is 100 lashes for unmarried people and stoning to death for married people.[58]


Apostasy is a crime punishable by death in the UAE.[59][60] Blasphemy is illegal, expats involved in insulting Islam are liable for deportation.[61] UAE incorporates hudud crimes of Sharia into its Penal Code - apostasy being one of them.[62] Article 1 and Article 66 of UAE's Penal Code requires hudud crimes to be punished with the death penalty,[62][63] therefore apostasy is punishable by death in the UAE.

Emirati women[edit]

Emirati women must receive permission from male guardian to marry and remarry.[64] The requirement is derived from Sharia, and has been federal law since 2005.[64] In all emirates, it is illegal for Muslim women to marry non-Muslims.[65] In the UAE, a marriage union between a Muslim woman and non-Muslim man is punishable by law, since it is considered a form of "fornication".[65]


Homosexuality is illegal: homosexuality is a capital offense in the UAE.[66][67] In 2014, an Emirati man was on trial for being accused of a "gay handshake".[67]

Public affection[edit]

Kissing in public is illegal and can result in deportation.[68] Expats in Dubai have been deported for kissing in public.[69][70][71] In Abu Dhabi, people have been sentenced to 80 lashes for kissing in public.[72]

Family law[edit]

The Sharia-based personal status law regulates matters such as marriage, divorce and child custody. The Sharia-based personal status law is applied to Muslims and sometimes non-Muslims.[73] Non-Muslim expatriates are liable to Sharia rulings on marriage, divorce and child custody.[73] Sharia courts have exclusive jurisdiction to hear family disputes, including matters involving divorce, inheritances, child custody, child abuse and guardianship of minors. Sharia courts may also hear appeals of certain criminal cases including rape, robbery, driving under the influence of alcohol and related crimes.[74]

Other laws[edit]

Article 1 of the Federal Penal Code states that "provisions of the Islamic Law shall apply to the crimes of doctrinal punishment, punitive punishment and blood money."[75] The Federal Penal Code repealed only those provisions within the penal codes of individual emirates which are contradictory to the Federal Penal Code. Hence, both are enforceable simultaneously.[76]

A new federal law in the UAE prohibits swearing in Whatsapp and penalizes swearing by a $68,061 fine and imprisonment,[77] expats are penalized by deportation.[77][78][79][80] In July 2015, an Australian expat was deported for swearing in Facebook.[81][82][83][84][85]

Amputation is a legal punishment in the UAE due to the Sharia courts.[86][87][88][89][90] Crucifixion is a legal punishment in the UAE.[91][92][93] During the month of Ramadan, it is illegal to publicly eat, drink, or smoke between sunrise and sunset.[94] Exceptions are made for pregnant women and children. The law applies to both Muslims and non-Muslims,[94] and failure to comply results in arrest.[95]

Forced disappearances and torture[edit]

UAE has escaped the Arab Spring; however, more than 100 Emirati activists were jailed and tortured because they sought reforms.[96][97][98] Since 2011, the UAE government has increasingly carried out forced disappearances.[99][1][2][100][101][102] Many foreign nationals and Emirati citizens have been arrested and abducted by the state, the UAE government denies these people are being held (to conceal their whereabouts), placing these people outside the protection of the law.[97][1][103] According to Human Rights Watch, the reports of forced disappearance and torture in the UAE are of grave concern.[2]

The Arab Organisation of Human Rights has obtained testimonies from many defendants, for its report on "Forced Disappearance and Torture in the UAE", who reported that they had been kidnapped, tortured and abused in detention centres.[1][103] The report included 16 different methods of torture including severe beatings, threats with electrocution and denying access to medical care.[1][103]

In 2013, 94 Emirati activists were held in secret detention centres and put on trial for allegedly attempting to overthrow the government.[104] Human rights organizations have spoken out against the secrecy of the trial. An Emirati, whose father is among the defendants, was arrested for tweeting about the trial. In April 2013, he was sentenced to 10 months in jail.[105]

Repressive measures were also used against non-Emiratis in order to justify the UAE government's claim that there is an "international plot" in which UAE citizens and foreigners were working together to destabilize the country.[103] Foreign nationals were also subjected to a campaign of deportations.[103] There are many documented cases of Egyptians and other foreign nationals who had spent years working in the UAE and were then given only a few days to leave the country.[103]

Foreign nationals subjected to forced disappearance include two Libyans[106] and two Qataris.[103][107] Amnesty reported that the Qatari men have been abducted by the UAE government and the UAE government has withheld information about the men's fate from their families.[103][107] Amongst the foreign nationals detained, imprisoned and expelled is Iyad El-Baghdadi, a popular blogger and Twitter personality.[103] He was arrested by UAE authorities, detained, imprisoned and then expelled from the country.[103] Despite his lifetime residence in the UAE, as a Palestinian citizen, El-Baghdadi had no recourse to contest this order.[103] He could not be deported back to the Palestinian territories, therefore he was deported to Malaysia.[103]

In 2012, Dubai police subjected three British citizens to beatings and electric shocks after arresting them on drugs charges.[108] The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, expressed "concern" over the case and raised it with the UAE President, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, during his 2013 state visit to the UK.[109] The three men were pardoned and released in July 2013.[110]

In April 2009, a video tape of torture smuggled out of the UAE showed Sheikh Issa bin Zayed Al Nahyan torturing a man with whips, electric cattle prods, wooden planks with protruding nails and running him over repeatedly with a car.[111] In December 2009 Issa appeared in court and proclaimed his innocence.[112] The trial ended on 10 January 2010, when Issa was cleared of the torture of Mohammed Shah Poor.[113] Human Rights Watch criticised the trial and called on the government to establish an independent body to investigate allegations of abuse by UAE security personnel and other persons of authority.[114] The US State Department has expressed concern over the verdict and said all members of Emirati society "must stand equal before the law" and called for a careful review of the decision to ensure that the demands of justice are fully met in this case.[115]

Freedom of speech[edit]

In the UAE, it is not permitted to be critical of the government, government officials, police and the royal family. Any attempt to also form a union in public and protest against any issue, will be met with severe action.[116]

On 16 November 2007 Tecom stopped broadcast of two major Pakistani satellite news channels, uplinked from Dubai Media City, which was initially marketed by Tecom under the tagline "Freedom to Create." The Dubai government had ordered Tecom to shut down the popular independent Pakistani news channels Geo News and ARY One World on the demand of Pakistan's military regime led by General Pervez Musharraf. This was implemented by du Samacom disabling their SDI & ASI streams. Later, policy makers in Dubai permitted these channels to air their entertainment programs, but news, current affairs and political analysis were forbidden. Although subsequently the conditions were removed, marked differences have since been observed in their coverage. This incident has had a serious impact on all organizations in the media city with Geo TV and ARY OneWorld considering relocation.[117][118][119]


In 2012, a cybercrime decree was issued, imposing severe restrictions on freedom of speech in social networking, blogs, text messages and emails. The law outlawed criticism of senior officials and demands for political reform.[120] The law stipulates an imprisonment and a fine of up to 1,000,000 dirhams for publishing information which is deemed to be critical towards the state.[120]

In 2015, a man was detained for commenting on his employer's Facebook page after a disagreement with his employer, even though the posts were made while the man was in the United States. Police in Abu Dhabi contacted him after he came back to the UAE and asked him to meet officers at a police station, where he was later detained. [121]

Freedom of religion[edit]

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion in accordance with established customs, and the government generally respects this right in practice. However, there were some restrictions, for example, it is an offence to proselyte other religions. The federal Constitution declares that Islam is the official religion of the country and this has been the basis of some rules in the country. There were no reports of societal abuses based on religious belief or practice.

In recent years, a large number of Shia Muslim expatriates have been deported from the UAE,[122][123][124] Lebanese Shia families in particular have been deported for their alleged sympathy for Hezbollah.[125][126][127][128][129][130] According to some organizations, more than 4,000 Shia expats have been deported from the UAE in recent years.[131][132] Shia Emiratis face significant social discrimination, many have opted to hide their Shia identity to avoid discrimination.

Women's rights[edit]

UAE has signed the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Women in the UAE are given the right to travel without a male guardian's permission, the right to education and the right to drive motor vehicle.[citation needed]

Migrant and labour rights[edit]

Construction workers at the Burj Dubai
See also: kafala system

Migrants, particularly migrant workers, make up a majority (approximately 80%) of the resident population of the UAE, and account for 90% of its workforce.[133] They generally lack rights associated with citizenship and face a variety of restrictions on their rights as workers.[134][135] There are reports of undocumented Emirati's who, because of their inability to be recognized as full citizens, receive no government benefits and have no labour rights. These stateless Emiratis—also known as bidun—either migrated to the UAE before independence or were natives who failed to register as citizens.[136] In addition, there are various incidents where local individuals have ill-treated people from overseas, just on the basis of nationality or race. [137]

Emiratis receive favorability in employment via the Emiratisation program forcing companies by law to limit the number of migrant workers in a company. This is done for the purposes of stabilizing the labor market and protecting the rights of this group as a minority in their own country. At the same time, however, due to the welfare benefits of the UAE government, many Emiratis are reluctant to take up low paying jobs especially those in the private sector; private sector employers are also generally more inclined to hire overseas temporary workers as they are cheaper and can be retrenched for various reasons, for example, if they go on strike[138][139][140][141] Most UAE locals also prefer government jobs and consider private sector jobs to be below them.[142] Very few foreigners who have been granted citizenship.

Migrants, mostly of South Asian origin, constitute 42.5% of the UAE’s workforce[143] and have reportedly been subject to a range of human rights abuses. Workers have sometimes arrived in debt to recruitment agents from home countries and upon arrival were made to sign a new contract in English or Arabic that pays them less than had originally been agreed, although this is illegal under UAE law.[144] Further to this, some categories of workers have had their passports withheld by their employer. This practice, although illegal, is to ensure that workers do not abscond or leave the country on un-permitted trips.[145]

  • In September 2003 the government was criticised by Human Rights Watch for its inaction in addressing the discrimination against Asian workers in the emirate.[146]
  • In 2004 the United States Department of State has cited widespread instances of blue collar labour abuse in the general context of the United Arab Emirates.[147]
  • The BBC reported in September 2004 that "local newspapers often carry stories of construction workers allegedly not being paid for months on end. They are not allowed to move jobs and if they leave the country to go home they will almost certainly lose the money they say they are owed. The names of the construction companies concerned are not published in the newspapers for fear of offending the often powerful individuals who own them.".[148]
  • In December 2005 the Indian consulate in Dubai submitted a report to the Government of India detailing labour problems faced by Indian expatriates in the emirate. The report highlighted delayed payment of wages, substitution of employment contracts, premature termination of services and excessive working hours as being some of the challenges faced by Indian workers in the city.[149] The consulate also reported that 109 Indian blue collar workers committed suicide in the UAE in 2006.[150]
  • In March 2006 NPR reported that workers "typically live eight to a room, sending home a portion of their salary to their families, whom they don't see for years at a time." Others report that their salary has been withheld to pay back loans, making them little more than indentured servants.[151]
  • In 2007 the falling dollar meant workers were unable to service debts and the incidence of suicides among Indian workers had reportedly been on the increase.[152]
Construction workers from Asia on top floor of the Angsana Tower

Achieving redress with the authorities, namely the Ministry of Labor, is hard for many workers as the majority hails from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, and cannot speak either Arabic or English. Also, claims can drag on in the labor courts for months by which time the unpaid laborers have little option other than acceptance of whatever settlement is given.

2006 Workers' riots[edit]

On 21 March 2006, tensions boiled over at the construction site of the Burj Khalifa as workers upset over low wages and poor working conditions rioted, damaging cars, offices, computers, and construction tools. A Dubai Interior Ministry official said the rioters caused approximately US$1 million in damage. On 22 March most workers returned to the construction site but refused to work. Workers building a new terminal at Dubai International Airport went on strike in sympathy.[153] Another strike took place in October 2007. 4,000 strikers were arrested. Most of them were released some days later and were then deported from Dubai.[154]

Government action[edit]

In the past, the UAE government has denied any kind of labor injustices and has stated that the accusations by Human Rights Watch were misguided.[155] Towards the end of March 2006, the government announced steps to allow construction unions. UAE labour minister Ali al-Kaabi said, "Laborers will be allowed to form unions."

The strikes and negative media attention provided exposure of this regional problem and in 2008 the UAE government decreed and implemented a "midday break" during summer for construction companies, ensuring laborers were provided several hours to escape the summer heat. Illegal visa overstayers were assured amnesty and even repatriated to their home countries at the expense of friends, embassies or charities.[156]

In July 2013, a video was uploaded onto YouTube, which depicted a local driver hitting an expatriate worker, following a road related incident. Using part of his head gear, the local driver whips the expatriate and also pushes him around, before other passers-by intervene. A few days later, Dubai Police announced that both, the local driver and the person who filmed the video, have been arrested. It was also revealed that the local driver was a senior UAE government official, although the exact government department is not known.[157] The video once again brings into question the way that lower classes of foreign workers are treated. Police in November 2013, also arrested a US citizen and some UAE citizens, in connection with a YouTube parody video which allegedly portrayed Dubai in bad light.[158] The parody video was shot in areas of Satwa and depicted gangs learning how to fight using simple weapons, including shoes, the aghal, etc.

In November of 2013, there was another incident involving an American broadcast professional whom after obtaining a business license from the UAE government, started an Internet music station but his ex Emirati manager used his status and connections to not only block the American website and stream, but to submit a false report to the authorities, have the American citizen arrested, jailed for 10 days, and have his passport taken away for 10 months without ever charging him. The American citizen found a way to escape Dubai and after a perilous journey in August of 2014, safely made it back to the U.S.[citation needed]

Labor law issues[edit]

The UAE has four main types of labor laws:

  • Federal Labor Law – Applies to all the seven Emirates and supersedes free zone laws in certain areas.[159]

Labor laws generally favor the employer and are less focused on the rights of employees. The Ministry of Labor is criticized for loosely enforcing these laws, most notably late or no wage or overtime payment for both blue collar and white collar employees.[162][163][164]

Free Zone labor laws are friendlier to employees moving between companies unlike the Federal UAE labor law, which automatically bans employees for a period of six months up to a year for leaving a company before completing one year of employment. These kinds of laws discourage free labor movement, and give employers an unfair advantage in salary negotiations.

Human trafficking and prostitution[edit]

According to the Ansar Burney Trust (ABT), an illegal sex industry thrives in the emirates, where a large number of the workers are victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation, especially in Dubai. This complements the tourism and hospitality industry, a major part of Dubai's economy.[165]

Prostitution, though illegal by law, is conspicuously present in the emirate because of an economy that is largely based on tourism and trade. There is a high demand for women from Europe and Asia. According to the World Sex Guide, a website catering to sex tourists, Eastern European and Ethiopian women are the most common prostitutes, while Eastern European prostitutes are part of a well-organized trans-Oceanic prostitution network.[166] The Government has been trying to curb prostitution. In March 2007, it was reported that the UAE has deported over 4,300 sex workers mainly from Dubai.[167][168]

The UAE government enshrines conservative values in its constitution and therefore has adopted significant measures to combat this regional problem. The government of the UAE has worked with law enforcement officials to build capacity and awareness through holding training workshops and implementing monitoring systems to report human rights violations. Despite this, the system led to registration of only ten human-trafficking related cases in 2007 and half as many penalized convictions.[169] Businesses participating in exploiting women and conducting illegal activities have licenses revoked and operations are forced to close. In 2007, after just one year, the efforts led to prosecution of prostitution cases rose by 30 percent. A year later, an annual report on the UAE’s progress on human trafficking measures was issues and campaigns to raise public awareness of the issue are also planned.[170] Internationally, the UAE has also led various efforts in combating human trafficking, particularly with the main countries of origin. The state has signed numerous bilateral agreements meant to regulate the labor being sent abroad by ensuring transactions are conducted by labor ministries and not profiting recruitment agencies.

Child camel jockeys[edit]

Main article: Child camel jockeys

A 2004 HBO documentary accuses UAE citizens of illegally using child jockeys in camel racing, where they are subjected also to physical and sexual abuse. Anti-Slavery International has documented similar allegations.[171]

The practice is officially banned in the UAE since the year 2002. The UAE was the first to ban the use of children under 15 as jockeys in the popular local sport of camel-racing when Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, UAE's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of State for Foreign Affairs announced the ban on July 29, 2002.[14] Announcing the ban, Sheikh Hamdan made it very clear that "no-one would be permitted to ride camels in camel-races unless they had a minimum weight of 45 kg, and are not less than 15 years old, as stated in their passports." He said a medical committee would examine each candidate to be a jockey to check that the age stated in their passport was correct and that the candidate was medically fit. Sheikh Hamdan said all owners of camel racing stables would be responsible for returning children under 15 to their home countries. He also announced the introduction of a series of penalties for those breaking the new rules. For a first offense, a fine of 20,000 AED was to be imposed. For a second offense, the offender would be banned from participating in camel races for a period of a year, while for third and subsequent offense, terms of imprisonment would be imposed.[14]

The Ansar Burney Trust,[172] which was featured heavily in the HBO documentary, announced that in 2005 the government of the UAE began actively enforcing a ban on child camel jockeys, and that the issue "may finally be resolved".[173]

Victim support[edit]

Special funds to provide support for victims have been created such as Dubai’s Foundation for the Protection of Women and Children, Abu Dhabi's Social Support Center, the Abu Dhabi Shelter for Victims of Human Trafficking and the UAE Red Crescent Authority. Services offered include counseling, schooling, recreational facilities, psychological support and shelter. Mainly women and children receive assistance and in certain cases are even repatriated to their home countries.[174]

Abduction of Jaweed al-Ghussein[edit]

The late Jaweed al-Ghussein was escorted by the Abu Dhabi security police on the 19th of April 2001. Held for 3 days at the Bateen police station, al-Ghussein was allegedly denied his insulin, food and legal representation. No charges were made. On April 22, he was escorted under armed guards allegedly put forcibly on Yasser Arafat's private jet, and accompanied by the elite force 17 and flown to al-Arish, Egypt, and then across the borders to the Gaza Strip, where he was held for 16 months. No legal procedures took place. Orders for his removal, considered illegal, were approved by Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, President of the Red Crescent in the UAE. Released from captivity in November after international pressure, al-Ghussein was allegedly abducted a second time by the Red Crescent in Cairo, Egypt while undergoing chemotherapy for cancer by the Egyptian national security and the Palestinian National Authority.

On January 3, 2002, the United Nations Committee on Arbitrary Detention released their findings and placed al-Ghussein in their highest category of human deprivation, category 1 'were manifestly there was no legal justification' and appointed a Special Rapporteur on Torture. Al Ghussein was released in August 2002 after mounting international pressure led by the late Palestinian leader Haider Abdel Shafi and mediated by Canon Andrew White, Middle East envoy to Lord George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury. The case was raised at the House of Lords by Lord Clive Soley in November 2009 who questioned the apparent lack of rule of law in Abu Dhabi. The government of Abu Dhabi continues to deny the family their rights and have refused to co-operate with international agencies.

See also[edit]


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External links[edit]