United Arab Emirates

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press and other media, but the law prohibits criticism of national rulers and speech that may create or encourage social unrest. The government regularly restricted freedom of speech and the press, and human rights organizations reported that the government continues to detain political activists and human rights defenders. Media outlets conformed to unpublished government guidelines. Editors and journalists were aware of government “red lines” for acceptable media content, stipulated in federal libel and slander laws. On other socially sensitive topics, they commonly practiced self-censorship. In January the government introduced the National Policy for the Quality of Digital Life aimed at encouraging positive digital citizenship by promoting “tolerance, coexistence, and pluralism” in the curriculum of government schools.

Freedom of Expression: After the onset of widespread regional popular uprisings in 2011, authorities severely restricted freedom of expression by prohibiting any public criticism of the government and individual ministers. The government continued to make arrests or impose other restrictions for speech related to and in support of Islamist political activities, calls for democratic reforms, criticism of or perceived insults against the government and government institutions, and, in rarer cases, criticism of individuals. Both verbal and written insults online are a prosecutable offense.

In other cases authorities brought individuals to trial for posting material on social media platforms that was considered a violation of privacy or personally insulting to acquaintances, colleagues, employers, or religions.

Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Media, Including Online Media: International NGOs categorized the press, both in print and online, as not free. Except for regional media outlets located in Dubai and Abu Dhabi’s free-trade zones, the government owned and controlled most newspapers, television stations, and radio stations. Journalists reported the government maintained unpublished guidelines for acceptable media content. Regulations for electronic media, including rules for publishing and selling advertising, print, video, and audio material, require those benefitting monetarily from social media advertising to purchase a license from the National Media Council (NMC).

Censorship or Content Restrictions: By law the NMC, whose chair the president appoints, licenses, and censors all publications, including private association publications. Domestic and foreign publications were censored to remove any criticism of the government, ruling families, or friendly governments. Online content was often removed without transparency or judicial oversight. Domain hosts or administrators are liable if their websites are used to “prompt riot, hatred, racism, sectarianism, or damage the national unity or social peace or prejudice the public order and public morals.” Censorship also extends to statements that “threaten social stability” and materials considered pornographic or excessively violent. The government in December introduced a new “21+” rating for films with mature content, allowing “international versions” of films to be screened in the country. Prior to the announcement of the new rating system, authorities reportedly banned or edited films for “mature” content, which it considered to include representations of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) individuals.

Government and private institutions must obtain a license before publishing or broadcasting media or advertising content, or face penalties. This requirement applies to any media or advertising activity and to any person or entity that issues any type of publication, including clubs, associations, diplomatic missions, foreign centers, and movie theaters.

Government officials allegedly warned journalists who published or broadcast material deemed politically or culturally sensitive. Editors and journalists commonly practiced self-censorship due to fear of government retribution, particularly since most journalists were foreign nationals and could be deported. Authorities did not allow importation or publication of some books they viewed as critical of the government, Islam, and local culture, as well as books that supported the Muslim Brotherhood or its ideology.

Internet and television providers continued to block Qatari-funded al-Jazeera’s website and most Qatari broadcasting channels at the direction of government authorities.

Libel/Slander Laws: The government used libel and slander laws to suppress criticism of its leaders and institutions. The law criminalizes acts that defame others online or through information technology, including communication applications such as WhatsApp; punishment is either imprisonment or a fine. In July a Ras al-Khaimah court ordered a woman to pay a former Federal National Council member AED 20,000 ($5,450) as compensation after she allegedly insulted him and damaged his reputation on social media.

Those convicted of libel face up to two years in prison. The maximum penalty for libel against the family of a public official is three years in prison.

The law also criminalizes any form of expression the government interprets as blasphemous or offensive toward “divine recognized religions,” inciting religious hatred or insulting religious convictions.

National Security: Authorities often cited the need to protect national security as the basis for laws that prohibit and punish criticism of the government or expression of dissenting political views. For example, the country’s cybercrime laws include broad limitations on using electronic means to promote disorder or “damage national unity.” Human rights groups criticized these laws for excessively restricting freedom of expression.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for the freedoms of assembly and association, but the government did not always respect these rights.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The law provides limited freedom of assembly, although the government imposed significant restrictions on freedom of assembly in practice.

The law requires a government-issued permit for organized public gatherings. While there was no uniform standard for the number of persons who could gather without a permit, some residents reported authorities ask groups of four or more to disperse if they did not have a permit. The government did not interfere routinely with informal, nonpolitical gatherings held without a government permit in public places unless there were complaints. The government generally permitted political gatherings that supported government policies. Hotels, citing government regulations, sometimes denied permission for groups such as unregistered religious organizations to rent space for meetings or religious services.

Freedom of Association

The law provides limited freedom of association. The government imposed significant restrictions on freedom of association in practice.

Political organizations, political parties, and trade unions are illegal. All associations and NGOs are required to register with the Ministry of Community Development, and many that did so received government subsidies. Domestic NGOs registered with the ministry were mostly citizens’ associations for economic, religious, social, cultural, athletic, and other purposes.

Registration rules require that all voting organizational members, as well as boards of directors, must be citizens. This requirement excluded almost 90 percent of the population from fully participating in such organizations. In Dubai volunteer organizations were required to register with the Community Development Authority (CDA) and obtain its approval before conducting fundraising activities. In April the president issued a federal law requiring a license from the CDA for individuals and entities to engage in fundraising activities or collecting donations, which they may do no more than four times a year. Penalties under the law may include substantial fines and deportation of noncitizens.

Associations must follow the government’s censorship guidelines and receive prior government approval before publishing any material. In Abu Dhabi all exhibitions, conferences, and meetings require a permit from the Tourism and Culture Authority. To obtain a permit, the event organizer must submit identification documents for speakers along with speaker topics.

LGBTQI+ individuals could not openly engage in advocacy for LGBTQI+ rights due to social norms and possible prosecution or reprisal (see section 6).

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

The law generally provided for freedom of internal movement, emigration, and repatriation. In September the Abu Dhabi Emergency, Crisis, and Disaster Committee for the COVID-19 pandemic ended internal movement restrictions following a sharp drop in COVID-19 cases.

While the government generally respected the right to freedom of internal movement, emigration, and repatriation, it imposed certain legal restrictions on foreign travel. The lack of passports or other identity documents restricted the movement of stateless persons, both within the country and internationally.

Foreign Travel: Authorities generally did not permit citizens and residents involved in legal disputes under adjudication and noncitizens under investigation to travel abroad. In addition, authorities sometimes arrested individuals with outstanding debts or legal cases while in transit through an international airport. Abu Dhabi and Dubai maintain a system that allows individuals to verify if they are subject to a travel ban related to unsettled debts or pending legal action. In some cases travelers can settle debts directly at the airport and have their travel ban lifted. Debtors also may challenge travel bans in court.

Emirate-level prosecutors have the discretion to seize the passports of foreign citizens and restrict foreign travel during criminal or civil investigations. These measures posed particular problems for noncitizen debtors who, in addition to being unable to leave the country, were usually unable to find work without a passport and valid residence permit, making it impossible to repay their debts or maintain legal residency. In some cases family, friends, local religious organizations, or other concerned individuals helped pay the debt and enabled the indebted foreign national to depart the country. In February Dubai authorities released a number of prisoners after a group of charities and individual donors paid their debts. In September a charity in Sharjah paid the debts of 805 persons including an unspecified number of inmates.

Citizens targeted for reasons of state security, including former political prisoners, encountered difficulties renewing official documents, resulting in implicit travel bans.

Custom dictates that a husband may prevent his wife, minor children, or adult unmarried daughters from leaving the country by taking custody of their passports.

Citizenship: The government may revoke naturalized citizens’ passports and citizenship status for criminal or “politically provocative” actions.

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government allowed the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations to provide protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.

UNHCR lacked formal legal status in the country separate from the UN Development Program. The government nevertheless worked with UNHCR on a case-by-case basis to address refugee issues. The government informally granted refugee status or asylum to aliens seeking protection and allowed some asylum seekers to remain in the country temporarily on an individual basis. This nonpermanent status often presented administrative, financial, and social hardships, including the need frequently to renew visas and the inability to access basic services such as health care and education.

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a transparent, codified system for providing protection to refugees. While the government extended informal protection from return to refugees in some cases, any persons lacking legal residency status were technically subject to local laws on illegal immigrants, and authorities could detain them. In some cases authorities confined individuals seeking protection at an airport to a specific section of the airport while they awaited resettlement in another country. Since August the government has supported the evacuation from Afghanistan of more than 10,000 individuals, including American citizens, third-country nationals, and at-risk Afghans. As of December the non-U.S. citizen individuals were being evaluated for resettlement or relocation to other countries.

Employment: Access to employment was based on an individual’s status as a legal resident, and persons with a claim to refugee status but who lacked legal residency status, including those with either short-term visitor visas or expired visas, were generally not eligible for employment.

Access to Basic Services: Access to education and other public services, including health care, is based on an individual’s status as a legal resident. As a result, some families, particularly from Iraq and Syria, reportedly did not have access to health care or schools. The government provided or allowed access to some services on a case-by-case basis, often after the intervention of UNHCR representatives. Some hospitals were willing to see patients without the mandatory insurance but required full payment up front.

Informal estimates suggested 20,000 to 100,000 Bidoon, or persons without citizenship, resided in the country. The government estimated the population at 10,000. Most Bidoon lacked citizenship because they did not belong to one of the tribes granted citizenship when the country was established. Others entered the country legally or illegally in search of employment. Because children derive citizenship generally from the father, Bidoon children born within the country’s territory remained stateless. Without passports or other forms of identification, Bidoon find their movement restricted, both within the country and internationally. In previous years the government purchased a number of passports from Comoros and issued them to Bidoon. The documents conferred economic Comorian citizenship on the recipients and legalized their status in the country but did not extend citizenship or the right to residency in Comoros. In 2018 the Comoros government reportedly halted issuance of new passports under its economic citizenship program, but there were reports of Bidoon individuals receiving Comoros passports issued after 2018.

The committee that reviews mothers’ citizenship applications for their children also reviews citizenship applications from Bidoon who could satisfy certain legal conditions to be eligible for naturalization and subsequently could gain access to education, health care, and other public services. There were few reports of stateless persons receiving Emirati citizenship.

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U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future