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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - United Arab Emirates

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1995
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - United Arab Emirates, 30 January 1995, available at: [accessed 29 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a federation of seven emirates established in 1971. None has any democratically elected institutions or political parties. Each emirate retains control over its own oil and mineral wealth and some aspects of defense and internal security, although the Federal Government asserts primacy in most matters of law and government. Traditional rule has generally been patriarchal, with political allegiance defined in terms of loyalty to tribal leaders. Citizens may express their concerns directly to their leaders via traditional mechanisms, such as the open majlis, or council. In accordance with the 1971 provisional Constitution, the seven emirate rulers comprise a Federal Supreme Council, the UAE's highest legislative and executive body. The Council selects a President and Vice President from its membership; the President in turn appoints the Prime Minister and Cabinet. The Council meets occasionally, although the leaders meet frequently in more traditional settings. The Cabiet manages the Federation on a day-to-day basis.

Each emirate maintains its own police force, but only the Federal Government and the Emirate of Dubai have internal security organizations.

The UAE has a free market economy based on oil and gas production, trade, and light manufacturing. The Government owns the majority share of the petroleum production enterprise in the largest emirate, Abu Dhabi. The four emirates with small or nonexistent petroleum resources are dependent on federal government subsidies for such essential services as health, electricity, water, and education. The economy provides citizens with one of the world's highest per capita incomes but is heavily dependent on foreign workers who comprise 80 percent of the population.

A number of human rights continued to be restricted in 1994. The main problems included the denial of the right of citizens to change their government and limitations on the freedoms of speech, press, assembly, association, and worker rights. Women continue to make progress in education and in the work force, but some types of discrimination persist. The press continued to avoid direct criticism of the Government and exercised self-censorship on topics sensitive to the Government.


Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of political or extrajudicial killing.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of disappearances.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

There were no reports of torture in 1994. The Constitution prohibits torture or degrading treatment. Shari'a, or Islamic, courts frequently impose flogging on Muslims found guilty of adultery, prostitution, and drug and alcohol abuse. According to press accounts, punishments for adultery and prostitution have ranged from 80 to 200 lashes. In several cases, Muslims convicted of drunkenness have been sentenced to 80 lashes. Non-Muslims may also be sentenced to such punishments, but the Federal Supreme Court ruled in 1993 that convictions do not require the imposition of Shari'a penalties on non-Muslims. In 1994 several non-Muslims were reportedly sentenced to lashing after their convictions for adultery and prostitution. There was no indication that the punishments were carried out. No amputations were known to have been carried out.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Constitution prohibits arrest, search, detention, or imprisonment except in accordance with the law. The laws of each emirate prohibit arrest or search without probable cause.

Under the Criminal Procedures Code, the police must report arrests within 48 hours to the Attorney General who must determine within the next 24 hours whether to charge, release, or order further detention pending an investigation. The Attorney General may order detainees held for up to 21 days without charge. After that time, the authorities must obtain a court order for further detention without charge.

The authorities bring detainees to trial reasonably expeditiously, although the Code does not specify a right to a speedy trial. There is no formal system of bail, but the authorities may temporarily release detainees who deposit money or an important document such as a passport. The law permits incommunicado detention.

The Constitution prohibits exile, and it is not practiced.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The UAE has a dual system of Shari'a (Islamic) and civil (secular) courts. The nature of the case determines the venue. The civil courts are generally part of the federal system and are answerable to the Federal Supreme Court in Abu Dhabi. The Shari'a courts are administered by each emirate and are also answerable to the Federal Supreme Court. The court systems in the emirates of Dubai and Ras al-Khaimah are independent of the federal system, although they apply the Civil Procedure Code. Each court system has an appeals process. Death sentences may be appealed to the President. Legal procedures are uniform in both Shari'a and civil courts. Defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty.

The Constitution provides for the independence of the judiciary under the Supreme Court which has the power of judicial review and has original jurisdiction over disputes between emirates and between the Federal Government and emirates. The Constitution designates the Shari'a as the basis of all legislation. Judicial procedures reflect a mixture of Western and Islamic models.

In February the President decreed that the Shari'a courts, and not the civil courts, would have the authority to try virtually all criminal cases. The decree did not affect the emirates of Dubai, Umm Al-Quwain, and Ras al-Khaimah which have lower courts independent of the federal system. Nevertheless, despite the decree, judges in criminal cases involving non-Muslims may decide to impose civil court penalties, and appeals courts may overturn or modify Shari'a penalties imposed on non-Muslims by lower courts.

Legal counsel may represent defendants in both court systems. Under the new Criminal Procedures Code, the accused has a right to counsel in all cases involving a capital crime or possible life imprisonment. Only the Emirate of Dubai has a public defender's office. If the defendant is indigent, the Government will provide counsel. The Supreme Court ruled in 1993 that a defendant in an appeal case has a "fundamental right" to select his attorney and that this right supersedes a judge's power to appoint an attorney for the defendant.

There are no jury trials. A single judge normally renders the verdict in each case, whether in the Shari'a or civil court system. All trials are public, except national security cases and those deemed by the judge likely to harm public morality. Most judges are foreign nationals, primarily from other Arab countries; however, the Ministry of Justice has begun to train UAE citizens as judges and prosecutors.

The military has its own court system based on Western military judicial practice. Military tribunals try only military personnel. There is no separate national security court system.

There are no known political prisoners.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The Constitution prohibits entry into homes without the owner's permission, except in accordance with the law. Although the police may enter homes without a warrant and without demonstrating probable cause, an officer's actions in searching premises are subject to review, and he is subject to disciplinary action if he acts irresponsibly. Officials other than a police officer must have a court order to enter a private home. Local custom places a high value on privacy, and entry into private homes without the owner's permission is rare. There is no known surveillance of private correspondence.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

Although the Constitution provides for freedom of speech, most people, especially foreign nationals, refrain from criticizing the Government in public.

Many of the local English- and Arabic-language newspapers are privately owned, but receive government subsidies. Foreign publications are routinely subjected to censorship before distribution. Journalists censor themselves regarding reporting on government policy, the ruling families, national security, religion, and relations with neighboring states.

In May the Government banned distribution of the Arabic-language daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat for 1 week after the newspaper commented on a memorandum from the Minister of Economy and Commerce on the UAE's possible inclusion on the United States Trade Representative's "priority-watch" list.

All television and radio stations are government owned and conform to government reporting guidelines. Satellite receiving dishes are widespread and provide access to international broadcasts without apparent censorship. Censors at the Ministry of Information and Culture review imported newspapers, periodicals, books, films, and videos and ban any material considered pornographic, violent, derogatory to Islam, favorable to Israel, unduly critical of friendly countries, or critical of the Government or the ruling family. Authorities may confiscate material written in Hebrew.

The case of the 11 Indian nationals convicted in 1992 and 1993 by Shari'a court for producing and performing in a play that allegedly insulted Islam and Christianity drew to a close in 1994. Four of the defendants, who had been serving various prison terms, were released in December and reportedly departed the country. Of the remaining seven defendants, six apparently departed the country in 1993 after an appeals court overturned their convictions. The seventh defendant was tried in absentia .

The unwritten but generally accepted ban on criticism of the Government also restricts academic freedom, although in recent years academics have been more open with their criticism.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

These freedoms are tightly restricted. Political organizations are prohibited. Organized public gatherings require a government permit. Each emirate determines its own practice on public gatherings. Some are more tolerant of seminars and conferences on sensitive subjects.

Citizens normally confine political discussions to the numerous assemblies or "majlises," held in private homes. There are no restrictions on such gatherings. However, private associations must follow the government's censorship guidelines if they publish any material.

c. Freedom of Religion

Islam is the official religion. UAE citizens are predominately Sunni Muslims, but Shi'a Muslims are also free to worship and maintain mosques, except in the Emirate of Ras al-Khaimah. According to a press report, the Emirate of Dubai in 1993 placed private mosques under the control of its Department of Islamic Affairs and Endowments. This gave the Government greater control over the appointment of preachers and was reportedly intended to prevent the spread of what it considers religious extremism.

Non-Muslims are free to practice their religion but may not proselytize publicly or distribute religious literature. The major cities have Christian churches and Hindu and Sikh temples, some built on land donated by the ruling families. The Government permits the foreign clergy to minister to expatriate congregations. It also allows non-Muslims to engage in private charitable activities and to send their children to private schools.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

There are no limitations on freedom of movement or relocation within the country, except near defense and oil installations.

Unrestricted foreign travel and emigration are permitted to male citizens except those involved in financial disputes under adjudication. However, a husband may bar his wife and children from leaving the country without his permission. All citizens have the right to return. There is a small population of stateless residents, many of whom have lived in the UAE for more than one generation. They are Bedouins or the descendants of Bedouins who are unable to prove that they are of UAE origin. The Government does not issue them passports.

Citizens are not restricted in seeking or changing employment. However, foreign workers, except for primarily professional ones, may not change employers without first leaving the country for 6 months. This law is often not enforced.

The Government does not have any formal procedure for accepting refugees. It may detain persons seeking refugee status, particularly non-Arabs, while they await resettlement in a third country. There is no formal procedure for naturalization, although foreign women receive citizenship by marriage to a UAE citizen, and anyone may receive a passport by presidential fiat.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

The UAE has no formal democratically elected institutions, and citizens do not have the right to change their government or even to form political parties. Although there are consultative councils at the federal and emirate levels, most executive and legislative power is in the hands of the Federal Supreme Council. The seven emirate rulers, their extended families, and those persons and families to whom they are allied by historical ties, marriage, or common interest wield most political power in their own emirates. Decisions at the federal level are generally made by consensus of the sheikhs of the seven emirates and their leading families.

A federal consultative body, called the Federal National Council (FNC), consists of advisers appointed by the rulers of each emirate. The FNC has no legislative authority but may question ministers and make policy recommendations to the Cabinet. Its sessions are usually public.

The choice of a new emirate ruler falls to the ruling family in consultation with other prominent tribal figures. By tradition, the rulers and ruling families are presumed to have the right to rule, but their incumbency ultimately depends on the quality of their leadership and their responsiveness to their subjects' needs. Emirate rulers are accessible, in varying degrees, to citizens who have a problem or a request.

Tradition rather than law has limited the role of women. Women are free to hold government positions, but there are few women in senior positions because they are relatively new to government service and because there is pressure in many families against women entering the workplace. Although the small Shi'a Muslim minority has enjoyed commercial success, few Shi'a Muslims have top positions in the Federal Government.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

There are no local human rights groups. Government restrictions on freedom of press and public association would make it difficult for such groups to investigate and publicly criticize the Government's human rights performance.

Nonetheless, a few informal public discussions of human rights have taken place in recent years, such as a seminar in December 1992 and an international symposium in late 1993. Foreign and domestic academics, jurists, government officials, and a representative of an international human rights organization participated in this symposium. These events, along with some press coverage of local human rights issues, have led to a modest increase in public awareness of human rights issues.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status


Most women play a subordinate role in society because of the frequency of early marriage and traditional attitudes about women's activities. As noted in Section 2.d., husbands may bar their wives and children from leaving the country, and married women may not accept employment without their husbands' written consent. Islamic law is applied in cases of divorce. The woman receives custody of children until they are 7 years of age. Children older than 7 years live with their fathers unless judicial authorities decide otherwise. In divorce cases in which the mother is a non-Muslim or a foreigner, the court usually grants custody to the father regardless of the child's age. A woman who remarries forfeits her right to the custody of children from a previous marriage. Islamic law permits polygamy for men, but they rarely practice it. Women are restricted from holding majority shares in most businesses. Women who work outside the home generally receive equal pay for equal work, but do not receive equal beneits, such as housing.

Women continue to make rapid progress in education. They constitute 70 percent of the student body at the UAE University, largely because women rarely study abroad. Opportunities for women have grown in government service, education, and health services. Women are officially encouraged to continue their education, and government-sponsored women's centers provide adult education and technical training courses. The armed forces accept women volunteers. There is a special military training course for women which started after the Gulf War.

Spousal abuse is rarely reported. When reported, the local police authorities may take action to protect women from abuse. The laws protect women from verbal abuse or harassment from men. Violators are subject to criminal action. There continue to be credible reports of abuse of female domestic servants by both UAE and foreign employers (see Section 6.e.).

The law prohibits cohabitation by unmarried couples. The Government may imprison or deport noncitizen women if they bear children out of wedlock. In the event that courts sentence such women to prison, the local authorities will hold the newborn children in a special facility until the mothers' release and deportation. Children may remain in this facility longer in the event of a custody dispute.


The Government is committed to the welfare of children. Children receive free health care, free education, and guaranteed housing. There is no pattern of societal abuse of children.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Discrimination based on national origin, while not legally sanctioned, is prevalent (see Section 2.d.). Employment, immigration, and security policy as well as cultural attitudes towards foreign workers are conditioned by national origin.

People with Disabilities

There is no federal legislation requiring provision of accessibility for the disabled. However, the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs sponsors handicapped centers, which provide facilities and services to the disabled. Services range from special education and transportation assistance to sending a team to the Special Olympics.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

There are no unions and no strikes. The law does not grant workers the right to organize unions or to strike. Foreign workers, who make up the bulk of the work force, risk deportation if they attempted to organize unions or strike.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

The law does not grant workers the right to engage in collective bargaining, and it is not practiced. Workers in the industrial and service sectors are normally employed under contracts that are subject to review by the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. The purpose of the review is to ensure that the pay will satisfy the employee's basic needs and secure a means of living. For the resolution of work-related disputes, workers must rely on conciliation committees organized by the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs or on special labor courts. Labor laws do not cover domestic servants and agricultural workers, who have difficulty in obtaining any assistance to resolve their labor disputes.

In the Jebel Ali free zone in Dubai Emirate, the same labor laws apply as in the rest of the country.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

Forced or compulsory labor is illegal and not practiced. However, some unscrupulous employment agents bring foreign workers to the UAE under conditions approaching indenture.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

Labor regulations prohibit employment of persons under age 15 and have special provisions for employing those aged 15 to 18. The Department of Labor enforces the regulations. Other regulations permit employers to engage only adult foreign workers. In 1993 the Government prohibited the employment of children as camel jockeys and of jockeys who do not weigh more than 45 kilograms. The Camel Racing Association enforces the new rules. Otherwise, child labor is not permitted.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

There is no legislated or administrative minimum wage. Supply and demand determine compensation. However, according to the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, there is an unofficial, unwritten minimum wage rate which would afford a worker and family a minimal standard of living. As noted in Section 6.b., the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry reviews labor contracts and does not approve contracts that stipulate a clearly unacceptable wage.

The standard workday and workweek are 8 hours a day, 6 days a week, but these standards are not strictly enforced. Certain types of workers, notably domestic servants, may be obliged to work longer than the mandated standard hours. The law also provides for a minimum of 24 days a year of annual leave plus 10 national and religious holidays. In addition, manual workers are not required to do outdoor work when the temperature exceeds 45 degrees Celsius (112 degrees Fahrenheit).

Most foreign workers receive either employer-provided housing or a housing allowance, medical care, and homeward passage from their employers. Most foreign workers do not earn the minimum salary of approximately $1,370 a month required to obtain a residency visa for their families. Employers have the option to petition for a 1-year ban from the work force against any foreign employee who leaves his job without fulfilling the terms of his contract.

The Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, municipalities, and civil defense units enforce health and safety standards. The Government requires every large industrial concern to employ a certified occupational safety officer. An injured worker is entitled to fair compensation. Health standards are not uniformly observed in the housing camps provided for foreign workers. Workers' jobs are not protected if they remove themselves from what they consider to be unsafe working conditions. However, the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs may require employers to reinstate workers dismissed for not performing unsafe work. All workers have the right to lodge grievances with ministry officials, who make an effort to investigate all complaints. However, the Ministry is understaffed and underbudgeted so that complaints and compensation claims are backlogged. Complaints may be appealed to the Ministry and ultimately to the courts. However, many workers do not protest for fear of reprisals or deportation. There have been reports, some published in the local press, of abuses suffered by domestic servants, particularly women, by their employers. Allegations have included excessive work hours, extremely low wages, and verbal and physical abuse.

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