United Arab Emirates
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press. Nonetheless, the law prohibits criticism of national rulers and speech that may create or encourage social unrest. The government restricted freedom of speech and the press. The media conformed to unpublished government guidelines.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 issues, they commonly practiced self-censorship.
Freedom of Speech: After the onset of widespread regional popular uprisings in 2011, authorities severely restricted 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. The material was considered a violation of privacy or personally insulting to acquaintances, colleagues, employers, or religions. In March, Dubai police arrested a man for allegedly publishing a video on social media that mocked the traditional dress of Emiratis. In April police arrested and detained a British woman in the Dubai airport under the cybercrime law for insulting Facebook comments she posted about her former husband’s new wife; she was given a small fine. In May, Dubai authorities arrested a TikTok social media app user for “insulting the national currency” and charged him under the cybercrime law after he shared a video of himself blowing his nose into a 500 AED ($136) banknote. In the same month, authorities arrested a man for filming and posting a viral video of a dispute between a hotel worker and a woman after she refused to pay for valet parking service; the poster faced a possible six months in prison and a 500,000 dirham ($136,000) fine for “violating the privacy of others” under the cybercrime law. Under the cybercrime law, individuals using any information technology for the invasion of privacy, including the act of capturing someone’s photograph without their consent, can be punished by imprisonment for a period of at least six months and a fine between 150,000 AED ($40,800) and 500,000 AED ($136,000).
Throughout the year authorities reminded residents that spreading rumors that affect security and incite public panic is an offense punishable by up to one year in prison. In April the cabinet announced that anyone found sharing or circulating false guidelines, fake news, or any misleading information on COVID-19 could be fined up to 20,000 AED ($5,440).
After the government severed diplomatic ties with Qatar in 2017, the general prosecutor declared that showing any sympathy with Qatar or objecting to the government’s position against Qatar in written, visual, or verbal form would be punishable by three to 15 years in prison or a minimum fine of 500,000 AED ($136,000). These restrictions continued to apply to social media users in the country. The government continued to block Qatari-funded al-Jazeera’s website and most Qatari broadcasting channels. During the year there were no confirmed arrests under the declaration.
Freedom of 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 most newspapers, television stations, and radio stations. Journalists reported the government maintained unpublished guidelines for acceptable media content. The government also influenced privately owned media through the National Media Council (NMC), which directly oversaw all media content. In July a government restructuring brought the NMC under the Ministry of Culture and Youth, and the state-run Emirates News Agency under the Ministry of Presidential Affairs. Satellite-receiving dishes were widespread and provided access to uncensored international broadcasts. NMC 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 NMC.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: By law the NMC, whose chair the president appoints, licenses and censors all publications, including private association publications. In practice, domestic and foreign publications were censored to remove 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, excessively violent, or derogatory to Islam. In January, Dubai’s Criminal Court sentenced an Arab man to three months’ imprisonment, a significant fine, and deportation for insulting God in messages sent to his wife. The law also criminalizes as blasphemy acts that provoke religious hatred or insult religious convictions through any form of expression, including broadcasting, printed media, or the internet. Government and private institutions must obtain a license before publishing or broadcasting media or advertising content, or face penalties. This 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 reportedly warned journalists when they 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 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.
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. In December the Abu Dhabi Court of Cassation levied a moderate fine against a man on defamation charges for insulting his former wife 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.
National Security: Authorities often cited the need to protect national security as the basis for laws that curb 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 speech.
The Ministry of Interior lists 10 types of social media activities considered illegal under the cybercrime law: defaming or disrespecting others; violating privacy; filming persons or places and posting these videos without permission; spreading fake news and rumors; manipulating personal information; engaging in blackmail and threats; establishing websites or accounts that violate local regulations; inciting immoral acts; posting work-related confidential information; and establishing or managing websites or accounts to coordinate with terrorist groups.
Based on the cybercrime law, the government restricted access to some websites and conducted widespread surveillance of social media, instant messaging services, and blogs with little to no judicial oversight. Authorities stated they could imprison individuals for misusing the internet. Self-censorship was apparent on social media, and there were reports the Ministry of Interior monitored internet use. There were numerous documented instances of online surveillance used to track dissidents in the country and abroad. This included reports the government had purchased spyware and employed foreign hackers in systematic campaigns to target activists and journalists.
The country’s two internet service providers, both linked to the government, used a proxy server to block materials deemed inconsistent with the country’s values, as defined by the Ministry of Interior and overseen by the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority. Blocked material included pornographic websites and a wide variety of other sites deemed indecent, such as those dealing with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) issues; atheism; negative critiques of Islam; testimonies of former Muslims who converted to Christianity; gambling; promotion of illegal drug use; and postings that explained how to circumvent the proxy servers. International media sites, accessed using the country’s internet providers, contained filtered content. The government also blocked some sites containing content critical of the country and other states in the region. The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority was responsible for creating lists of blocked sites with no oversight or transparency. Service providers did not have the authority to remove sites from blocked lists without government approval. The government also blocked most voice-over-internet-protocol (VoIP) applications and the use of VoIPs through virtual private networks. In 2017 the government blocked Skype and in 2018 reportedly blocked an online petition protesting that move. Voice and video functions on WhatsApp and VoIPs were also blocked from use in country or with telephone numbers registered in the country. Convictions for violations of using VoIPs under cybercrime laws can lead to significant fines, imprisonment, or both. In March the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority approved a set of VoIP applications in an effort to support teleworking and distance learning measures implemented as a result of COVID-19. The authority’s statement noted that the applications were only temporarily available given the exceptional circumstances.
The Federal Public Prosecution for Information Technology Crimes investigated criminal cases involving use of information technology, including the use of the internet with the intent to damage public morals, the promotion of sinful behavior, insults to Islam and God, illegal collections of donations, trafficking in persons, calling for or abetting the breach of laws, and the organization of demonstrations.
The law explicitly criminalizes use of the internet to commit a wide variety of offenses and provides fines and prison terms for internet users who violate political, social, and religious norms. The law provides penalties for using the internet to oppose Islam; proselytize Muslims; abuse a holy shrine or ritual of any religion; insult any religion, belief, sect, race, color, or ethnic group; incite someone to commit sin; or contravene family values by publishing news or photographs pertaining to a person’s private life or family.
The 2012 cybercrime decree and the 2015 antidiscrimination law provide for more severe penalties for violations, including sentences up to life imprisonment and fines depending on severity and seriousness of the crime. The penalties for violating the cybercrime law include a significant fine, while acts of discrimination carry a large fine or a minimum of five years’ imprisonment. These laws add to existing online communication limitations on freedom of speech to include prohibitions on criticism or defamation of the government or its officials; insults based on religion, belief, sect, race, color, or ethnic origin; insults directed at neighboring countries; and calls for protests and demonstrations. In April the Federal Judiciary ordered the arrest and provisional detention of well known TV personality Tariq al-Mehyas for racist comments implying that Asian laborers were inferior to Arabs. In February, Dubai police reported it received 600 criminal tips through its social media accounts and took action in cases where social media users posted content showing them engaging in illegal activity, such as a case involving three men who shared a video on Snapchat in which they appeared to be smoking marijuana.
The NMC requires social media influencers who accept payment in money or high-value goods and services in return for endorsing products to join a social media management agency or obtain an e-commerce license for a small fee and a trade license, for which the price varies by emirate. Unlicensed paid social media influencers face a moderate fine.
The government restricted academic freedom, including speech both inside and outside the classroom by educators, and censored academic materials for schools. The government required official permission for conferences and submission of detailed information on proposed speakers and topics of discussion. This was also required at private schools for events on campus. Some organizations found it difficult to secure meeting space for public events that dealt with contentious issues.
Cultural institutions avoided displaying artwork or programming that criticized the government or religion. Self-censorship among cultural and other institutions, especially for content presented to the public, was pervasive and generally directed at preventing the appearance of illegal works, including those deemed as promoting blasphemy or addressing controversial political issues.
The constitution provides for the freedoms of assembly and association, but the government did not always respect these rights.
The law provides limited freedom of assembly. The government imposed significant restrictions in practice.
The law requires a government-issued permit for organized public gatherings. Authorities dispersed impromptu protests such as labor strikes and at times arrested participants. While there was no uniform standard for the number of persons who could gather without a permit, some residents reported authorities could 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 its policies. Hotels, citing government regulations, sometimes denied permission for groups such as unregistered religious organizations to rent space for meetings or religious services.
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 (formerly Social Affairs), and many that did so receive government subsidies. Domestic NGOs registered with the ministry were mostly citizens’ associations for economic, religious, social, cultural, athletic, and other purposes. In August the Ministry of Community Development announced it had registered 249 nonprofit associations. Of the total, 204 were nonbenefit public associations, 18 were solidarity funds, and 27 were NGOs. The nonbenefit public associations were categorized as: 75 public and cultural service associations; 35 professional associations; 30 popular arts associations; 28 humanitarian associations; 15 community associations; 13 theater associations; and eight women’s associations.
Registration rules require that all voting organizational members, as well as boards of directors, must be local 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 approval from the CDA before conducting fundraising activities.
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. The government denied permits if it did not approve of the topic or speaker. If the event or speaker continued without an approved permit, the government imposed fines.
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 June the Abu Dhabi Emergency, Crisis, and Disaster Committee for the COVID-19 pandemic banned movement between cities within the emirate and to and from other emirates, justifying the restrictions as necessary to ensure the success of Abu Dhabi’s mass COVID-19 testing campaign.
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 airport.
At the sole discretion of emirate-level prosecutors, foreign citizens had their passports taken or travel restricted during criminal and civil investigations. Some individuals were also banned from foreign travel. 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. According to media reports, the president pardoned 662 prisoners ahead of UAE National Day and pledged to settle financial obligations of the released prisoners. Authorities across the emirates pardoned more than 3,500 prisoners during the holy month of Ramadan. In February, Dubai authorities released approximately 11,000 prisoners after a group of charities and individual donors contributed nearly seven million AED ($1,900,000) to pay the prisoners’ debts.
Travel bans were placed on citizens and noncitizens. For example, citizens of interest for reasons of state security, including former political prisoners, encountered difficulties renewing official documents, resulting in implicit travel bans.
In December 2019 HRW reported on the government’s alleged targeting of relatives of political prisoners and dissidents living abroad. According to HRW, the government revoked the citizenship of 19 relatives of two dissidents, banned 30 relatives of six dissidents from traveling, and barred 22 relatives of three dissidents from renewing their identity documents. In all cases, authorities allegedly cited state security reasons.
Authorities did not lift travel bans until the completion of a case in the judicial system. In complex cases, particularly in the investigation of financial crimes, travel bans remained in place for three years or more. Dubai maintains 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 via a smart system implemented in 2019.
Custom dictates that a husband may prevent his wife, minor children, and 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.
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 did not formally grant refugee status or asylum to aliens seeking protection, but it 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. In 2018 the government announced that citizens of war-torn countries who were living in the UAE and had overstayed their visas would be permitted to apply for a permit to remain legally for one additional year. These applicants were also exempted from immigration fines. According to foreign observers, the government had not issued instructions on how to extend the permits issued in August 2018, which expired in August 2019, or whether this would be allowed.
Refoulement: In contrast with 2019, there were no public reports of refoulement during the year.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government had 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.
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. In December the Abu Dhabi Department of Health reminded health-care facilities that they are prohibited from denying emergency care based on lack of insurance, thereby allowing refugees access to emergency medical services.
Informal estimates suggested 20,000 to 100,000 Bidoon, or persons without citizenship, resided in the country. Government statistics estimated the population at 10,000. Most Bidoon lacked citizenship because they did not have the preferred tribal affiliation used to determine 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, the movement of Bidoon was 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 UAE. The passports however did not extend citizenship or the right to residency in Comoros. In 2018 the Comoros Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that the Comoros government would stop the issuance of new passports under its economic citizenship program.
The government has a naturalization process, and individuals may apply for citizenship. Children of female citizens married to noncitizens do not acquire citizenship automatically at birth, but their mothers may obtain citizenship for the children after submitting an application, which a government committee reviews and generally accepts, once the child is 18 years old. A foreign woman is eligible for naturalization after seven years of marriage if the couple has a child, or 10 years of marriage if the couple has no children. Anyone may receive a passport by presidential fiat. In October 2019 the Arab League launched the Arab Charter of Women’s Rights in Abu Dhabi. One of the items of the nonbinding charter stipulates that an Arab woman should be able to pass her nationality to her children and retain and restore her nationality in case of marriage or dissolution of marriage to a man of a different nationality.
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 no reports, however, of stateless persons receiving Emirati citizenship.