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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1993 - United Arab Emirates

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1994
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1993 - United Arab Emirates, 30 January 1994, available at: [accessed 24 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 have democratically elected institutions or political parties. Each emirate retains extensive control over mineral wealth (including oil) and some aspects of defense and internal security. Most emirates are governed through traditional tribal mechanisms, relying heavily on the open majlis or meeting wherein citizens may express their concerns directly to their leaders. In accordance with the 1971 Constitution, the seven emirate rulers comprise a Federal Supreme Council, the UAE's highest legislative and executive body. The Supreme Council selects a President and Vice President from its membership; the President in turn appoints the Prime Minister and Cabinet. The Supreme Council meets officially only occasionally, although the leaders meet frequently in more traditional settings. The Council of Ministers (Cabinet) manages the federation on a day-to-day basis.

In February the Federal Supreme Council revived the Federal National Council (FNC), a 40-member body of prominent citizens appointed by the leaders of the seven emirates in ratios reflecting the size of each emirate. The FNC had been inactive since the Gulf war. It has no legislative authority but can question Cabinet ministers and make recommendations to the Supreme National Council.

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

The UAE has a largely free market economy based on oil and gas production, trade, and light manufacturing. The Government owns the majority share of the oil enterprise in the largest Emirate, Abu Dhabi, with the other shares held by various private oil company equity partners. 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, which provides the UAE with one of the world's highest per capita incomes, is heavily dependent on foreign labor, which makes up 80 percent of the population. These workers, primarily from Asian or other Arab countries, perform most manual and technical labor.

A number of human rights remained closely restricted in 1993. The principal problems continued to be the denial of the right of citizens to change their government, incommunicado detention, and restrictions on the freedoms of speech, press, assembly, association, and worker rights. Women continue to make progress in education and in the work force, but certain types of discrimination persist. Although there had been a trend toward somewhat freer expression in 1991 and 1992, there was no significant progress in 1993. 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 Killings

There were no reports of political or other extrajudicial killings.

b. Disappearance

No political disappearances were reported.

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

The Constitution prohibits torture or degrading treatment, and there were no reports of such abuse in 1993. In the past, Shari'a courts were known to sentence Muslims and non-Muslims to flogging for crimes related to alcohol abuse and adultery. The Federal Supreme Court ruled in 1993 that Shari'a punishments may not be imposed on non-Muslims.

In 1993 there was a trend toward harsher sentencing. In March a UAE national and a foreign national convicted of piracy were each sentenced to the amputation of a hand and a foot; this followed the sentencing of another foreign national to the amputation of his hand for stealing. However, in both of these cases higher authorities are said to have ordered lighter sentences. No amputation sentences 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, and the laws of each emirate prohibit arrest or search without probable cause.

Under the Criminal Procedure Code, the police must report any arrest to the Attorney General within 48 hours, and he must determine within the next 24 hours whether to charge, release, or, with sufficient police justification, allow limited, further detention pending an investigation. Once charged, detainees are brought to trial reasonably expeditiously, although the Code includes no specific right to a speedy trial. There is no formal system of bail, but detainees sometimes are released upon the deposit of money or an important document such as a passport. The laws of the UAE allow incommunicado detention until the accused has been formally charged, and it is practiced.

Exile of citizens is prohibited by the Constitution and is not practiced.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The UAE has a dual system of Shari'a (clerical) and civil courts, each of which deals with both criminal and civil cases. The civil courts are usually part of the federal system and are answerable to the Federal Supreme Court in Abu Dhabi. The Shari'a courts are administered by each individual emirate, though they are ultimately 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 do apply the Civil Procedure Code. Each court system has a multilevel appeals process, and verdicts in all capital cases are appealable to the President. The nature of the case determines which court system hears a particular case, but most cases fall under the jurisdiction of the civil courts. Due process rights are uniform under both Shari'a and civil court procedure. There is a presumption of innocence unless guilt is proven.

Legal counsel is readily available and permitted to represent a defendant in both court systems. The court may appoint legal counsel if counsel agrees to provide services free; only Dubai has an office of public defender. The losing party may be required to pay the winner's legal fees. The judge is responsible for looking after the interests of a person not represented by counsel. Under the new Criminal Procedures Code, the accused has a right to defense counsel at trial in cases that involve a capital crime or possible life imprisonment. If the defendant is indigent, the Government will provide counsel. The Federal 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. All cases, except national security cases and those deemed by the judge likely to harm public morality, are open to the public. Most judges are foreign nationals, primarily from other Arab countries. In 1993 the Ministry of Justice initiated a program to train and develop UAE national judges and prosecutors.

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

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 discipline if he acts irresponsibly. Anyone other than a police officer must have a court order to enter a private home. Local custom and practice place a high value on privacy, and entry into private homes without the owner's permission is rare. There is no surveillance of private correspondence.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

Although UAE citizens are constitutionally assured freedom of speech, in practice there is censorship, and most inhabitants, especially foreign nationals, are circumspect in public discussions of sensitive political topics or in criticizing the Government. In 1993 an American citizen was detained briefly, but not arrested, for allegedly profaning the President in conversation with a third party.

Many of the local English- and Arabic-language newspapers are privately owned, but all receive government subsidies. All foreign publications are routinely subjected to censorship reviews before distribution. Domestic publications practice self-censorship, making formal censorship rare. Journalists also practice self-censorship in articles concerning the UAE destined for publication abroad.

In 1993 members of the newly revived FNC were often quite critical of government policies in their discussions during FNC sessions. Their criticisms were covered in the press.

The UAE press continues to be cautious in reporting on government policy, the ruling families, national security, religious matters, and relationships with neighboring states. A trend toward more open expression of opinion on subjects sensitive to the Government that began during the Gulf war did not continue in 1993. There were credible reports that the Government temporarily revoked the passport of an intellectual who published a newspaper article advocating democratic election of the Federal National Council members. Yet the Arabic press also carried articles written by non-UAE Arabs calling for greater democracy in the region.

All television and radio stations are government owned and conform to government reporting guidelines. However, television stations in Abu Dhabi and Dubai continue to broadcast the programs of the Cable News Network (CNN), with no apparent censorship.

The Censorship Department of the Ministry of Information and Culture reviews all imported newspapers, periodicals, books, films, and videos, and bans items considered pornographic, violent, derogatory to Islam, favorable to Israel, unduly critical of friendly countries, or critical of the Government or the ruling family. Widespread legal ownership of satellite dishes has undermined the Government's censorship efforts. Authorities confiscate material written in Hebrew. The small publishing industry is subject to government censorship in accordance with the above criteria.

In 1993, after an appeal, 2 of the 10 Indian expatriates convicted in 1992 of blasphemy for producing and performing in a play that was critical of Islam and Christianity had their sentences extended from 6 to 10 years. Six of the convictions were upheld and six were overturned.

The unwritten but widely accepted ban on criticism of the Government also restricts academic freedom. However, the trend observable over the last several years toward more overt criticism of the Government by academics continued to be evident in 1993. In December 1992, a seminar entitled "Human Rights in the World and in the Arab World" was held by the UAE Bar Association and the UAE Association of Sociologists in Dubai. The participants presented papers containing recommendations on monitoring human rights both inside and outside the UAE. Though the Government did not allow the publication of a key paper on human rights in the UAE, the seminar received extensive coverage in the press.

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, with some emirates taking a more liberal approach to seminars and conferences on sensitive subjects (see Section 2.a.). Citizens normally confine their political discussion and debate to the numerous "assemblies" (majlises), held in private homes, which are a local tradition. There are no restrictions on the formation of private associations.

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 throughout most of the UAE. However, Shi'as are not permitted mosques in the Emirate of Ras al Khaimah. According to a press report, the Emirate of Dubai has placed private mosques under the control of its Department of Islamic Affairs and Endowments. This move gives the Government greater control over the appointment of preachers and was reportedly taken by the Government to prevent the spread of what it considers religious extremism. By tradition and social custom, non-Muslims are free to practice their religion but may not publicly proselytize or distribute religious literature. A British Christian was recently arrested and sentenced to 6 months in prison for proselytizing. There are Christian churches and Hindu and Sikh temples, some built on land donated by the ruling families, in the major cities. Foreign clergymen are allowed to minister to expatriate congregations. Christian teaching is permitted in private schools for Christian children. Religious groups are allowed to engage in private charitable activities.

(See Section 2.a. on the appeal of Indian nationals charged with blasphemy.)

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

There are no restrictions on freedom of movement or relocation within the country, except for security areas such as 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. Since they do not hold passports, they may not travel abroad.

During and immediately after the Gulf war, the authorities revoked the residence permits and employment visas of some long-term residents of Palestinian, Iraqi, Yemeni, Jordanian, and Sudanese origin. In 1993 fewer of these residents had their residence permits or visas revoked, particularly those in highly technical professions. The Government reportedly asked known dissidents of Syrian and Egyptian nationality to leave the country; they were not forcibly repatriated but were told to find another country of residence.

UAE nationals are not restricted in seeking or changing employment. However, only foreign nationals in specific occupations, primarily professional, may change employers without first leaving the country for 6 months. This law is often not enforced.

There are no formal procedures for accepting refugees, and persons who seek refugee status are routinely jailed or detained while awaiting resettlement in a third country. Although one may acquire a UAE passport through marriage or presidential fiat, there is no formalized procedure for naturalization. Noncitizens are expected to leave the country at retirement age but may remain if sponsored by their children.

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 national levels, most executive and legislative power is in the hands of the seven emirate rulers, their extended families, and those persons and families to whom they are allied by historical ties, marriage, or common interest. These emirate political leaders constitute the dominant political force at the national level.

Members of the Federal National Council (FNC) are appointed by the rulers of each emirate in a ratio depending on the size and wealth of the emirate. The FNC has no legislative authority but may summon ministers, criticize government policies, and make recommendations to the Cabinet. Its sessions are open to the public.

Decisionmaking at the federal level is through consensus of the seven emirates and their leading families. This need for consensus tends to slow decisionmaking at the federal level. Citizens have the opportunity to make their views and grievances heard through attendance at majlises held by the rulers of each emirate. Women may attend women's majlises presided over by the wives of the rulers.

Although the rulers and ruling families by tradition are presumed to have the right to rule, 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. The choice of a new emirate ruler falls to the ruling family in consultation with other prominent tribal rulers.

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 continues to be strong family pressure against women entering the workplace. Although the UAE's Shi'a minority has enjoyed commercial success, few of their members manage to reach top positions in the Federal Government.

The political dominance of the ruling families is intertwined with their substantial involvement and influence in economic life. The ruling families and their close allies control and profit from petroleum production and, with important merchant families, have a major stake in the UAE's commercial life. A complex system of distribution of wealth, including through the federal and emirate governments, ensures generous subsidies and a high standard of living for most UAE citizens.

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

The UAE does not have any internal groups that monitor human rights. Government prohibitions on freedom of press and association would make it very difficult for a private group to investigate and publicly criticize the Government's human rights restrictions. The Human Rights Seminar held in December 1992, which was covered by the UAE press, has led to a small increase in public awareness of human rights issues. There were reports that a group of citizens has begun to meet irregularly to discuss human rights and democracy in the UAE. In December the Abu Dhabi Government sponsored a human rights symposium attended by foreign and domestic academics, jurists, and government officials. A representative of an international human rights organization attended and delivered a paper at the seminar.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion,

Disability, Language, or Social Status


Most women play a family-centered, subordinate role in UAE society because of the frequency of early marriage and traditional attitudes about women's activities. As noted earlier, husbands may bar their wives and children from leaving the country without their consent, and married women may not take employment without their husbands' written consent. In cases of divorce, Islamic law is observed. The woman receives custody of children until they are 7 years of age. After that, a child usually lives with his or her father unless there are circumstances that convince judicial authorities that custody should be given to the mother. 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. Polygyny, in accordance with Islamic law, is permitted for men. In practice, few UAE men have more than one wife. Women are restricted from holding majority shares in most major types of businesses. UAE women employed outside the home generally receive equal pay for equal work. A woman's property is not commingled with that of her husband.

Women's education continues to advance rapidly. Female enrollment at the UAE University, for example, now constitutes 70 percent of the student body, though this is partially attributable to the fact that UAE women rarely study abroad, as many UAE men do. Opportunities for women are also growing in government service and in traditional occupations such as education and health. Women are officially encouraged to continue their education, and government-sponsored women's centers provide adult education and technical training courses. The UAE military service accepts women volunteers in the officer corps and as enlisted personnel. A special military training course for women, started after the Gulf war, continues.

Spouse abuse is rarely reported in the UAE. Knowledgeable sources report a low incidence of medical cases resulting from spouse abuse. However, when reported, the local police authorities take action to protect women from abuse. UAE laws also protect women from verbal abuse or harassment from men, and violators are subject to criminal action. There continue to be credible reports of abuse of female domestic servants by both UAE and foreign employers, but the authorities do take action against the offender when an incident is reported.


The Government is committed to the welfare of children. Figures on federal and emirate expenditures on children are not available, but UAE children receive free health care, free education, guaranteed housing, and the other perquisites of UAE citizenship. Expatriate workers are not permitted to bring their families to the UAE unless they make a sufficient wage to provide for them. They must pay for the schooling of their children, but health care charges are negligible.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

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

Shi'a minority, based on their national origins rather than on their religious affiliation.

People with Disabilities

The UAE has no federal legislation requiring accessibility for the disabled. However, the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs sponsors the UAE 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

UAE law does not grant workers the right to organize unions and to strike. It is a criminal offense for public sector workers to strike. In practice, there are no unions and no strikes. Foreign workers who might attempt to organize a union risk deportation.

b. The Right To Organize and Bargain Collectively

UAE law does not grant workers the right to engage in collective bargaining, and it is not practiced. Most of the work force is composed of foreign nationals. 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 offered is enough for the employee's basic needs and to 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. Domestic servants and agricultural workers are not covered by UAE labor laws and thus have great difficulty in obtaining any assistance in resolving labor disputes. In the free port where manufacturing takes place, the same laws and regulations 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, foreign workers are often recruited in their own countries by unscrupulous agents who bring them into 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. Laws prohibiting the employment of children are enforced by the Department of Labor. Labor regulations allow contracts only for adult foreign workers. In January the Government announced new regulations prohibiting the employment of young children as camel jockeys and decreed that camel jockeys should weigh no less than 45 kilograms. It also created a Camel Racing Association which has effectively enforced the new rules during the 1993 racing season. Small children who were employed as jockeys were returned to their parents.

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 any contract that stipulates a clearly unacceptable wage.

The standard workday and workweek are set at 8 hours per day, 6 days per week, but these standards are not strictly enforced. The law provides for a minimum of 24 days per year of annual leave plus 10 national and religious holidays.

Most foreign workers receive either employer-provided housing or a housing allowance, medical care, and homeward passage through their employers. The vast majority of such workers, however, do not earn the minimum salary ($1,000 per month) required for them to sponsor their families for a UAE residence visa. Employers have the option to petition for a ban from the work force of 1 year for any foreign employee who leaves his job without fulfilling the terms of his contract.

The Government sets health and safety standards, which are enforced by the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, municipalities, and Civil Defense. Every large industrial concern is required to employ an occupational safety officer certified by the Ministry of Labor. If an accident occurs, a worker is entitled to fair compensation. Health standards are not uniformly observed in the housing camps provided by employers. Workers' jobs are not protected if they remove themselves from what they consider to be unsafe working conditions. However, the Ministry of Labor may require employers to reinstate workers following an investigation of the alleged unsafe working conditions. All workers have the right to complain to the Labor Ministry, whose officials are accessible to any grievant, and an effort is made to investigate all complaints. The Ministry, which oversees worker compensation, is, however, chronically understaffed and underbudgeted so that complaints and compensation claims are backlogged.

Foreign nationals from India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka continue to seek work in the UAE in large numbers. There are many complaints that recruiters in the country of origin use unscrupulous tactics to entice manual laborers and domestics to come to the UAE, promising unrealistically high salaries and benefits and at times bring them in illegally. The workers must promise the recruiters several months of future wages to secure their passage. When they come there are often no jobs waiting for them so they must find jobs as undocumented workers, accepting wages far below the accepted minimum wage. Such cases may be appealed to the Labor Ministry and, if this does not resolve the issue, to the courts. However, many laborers choose not to protest or to engage in such a lengthy process for fear of reprisals by their employers. Moreover, since the UAE tends to view foreign workers through the prism of their various nationalities, employment policies, like immigration and security policies, have at times been conditioned upon national origin.

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