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United Arab Emirates

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Human rights are legally protected by the Constitution of the United Arab Emirates, which confers equality, liberty, rule of law, presumption of innocence in legal procedures, inviolability of the home, freedom of movement, freedom of opinion and speech, freedom of communication, freedom of religion, freedom of council and association, freedom of occupation, freedom to be elected to office and others onto all citizens, within the limit of the law.[1] The UAE is held to be one of the most liberal countries in the Middle East, particularly if compared to its neighbors, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Due to the rapid development of the UAE from a traditional, homogeneous society in the mid-20th century to a modern, multicultural one at the beginning of the 21st century, the concurrent development of legal provisions and the practical enforcement of existing laws has been challenging and, in consequence, problems exist mainly in regard to human rights of non-citizens, who make up around 80% of the population. Main issues include companies' and employers' non-compliance with labor laws.

According to the U.S. Department of State annual report on human rights practices, the UAE is violating a number of fundamental practices. Specifically, the UAE does not have democratically elected institutions and citizens do not have the right to change their government or to form political parties. In certain instances, the government of the UAE has abused people in custody, denied their citizens the right to a speedy trial and access to counsel during official investigations.[2]

The government restricts freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and the local media practises self-censorship by avoiding directly criticizing the government. Freedom of association is also curtailed.

The UAE has not signed most international human rights and labor rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, and the Convention against Torture.


Freedom of speech

Although the UAE constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press, in practice these rights are very limited. By law, the Ministry of Information licenses all publications and approves the appointment of editors. Press content also is governed by law. Negative comments about Islam, the government, ruling families, or UAE citizens (by expatriates) are punishable by imprisonment, although this regulation is rarely enforced, as the press practices self-censorship. The Ministry of Information and Culture reviews imported printed material for content and imposes distribution limitations on material considered pornographic, excessively violent, derogatory to Islam, or contrary to government foreign policy.

2007 censorship of two Pakistani satellite channels

On 16 November 2007 Tecom stopped broadcast of two major Pakistani satellite news channels, uplinked from Dubai Media City, which was initially marketed by Tecom under the tagline "Freedom to Create." The Dubai government had ordered Tecom to shut down the popular independent Pakistani news channels Geo News and ARY One World on the demand of Pakistan's military regime led by General Pervez Musharraf. This was implemented by du Samacom disabling their SDI & ASI streams. Later, policy makers in Dubai permitted these channels to air their entertainment programs, but news, current affairs and political analysis were forbidden. Although subsequently the conditions were removed, marked differences have since been observed in their coverage. This incident has had a serious impact on all organizations in the media city with Geo TV and ARY OneWorld considering relocation.[3][4][5]

Freedom of religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion in accordance with established customs, and the government generally respects this right in practice; however, there were some restrictions. The federal Constitution declares that Islam is the official religion of the country. There were no reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious belief or practice.

Migrant and labor rights

Construction workers at the Burj Dubai

Migrants, particularly migrant workers, make up a majority (approximately 80%) of the resident population of the UAE, and account for 90% of its workforce.[6] They lack rights associated with citizenship and face a variety of restrictions on their rights as workers.[7][8]

It is common practice, although illegal, for employers in the UAE to retain employees' passports for the duration of the employment contract to prevent expatriate employees from changing jobs. On termination of an employment contract, certain categories of expatriates are banned from obtaining a work permit in the country for six months.[9]

Migrants, mostly of South Asian origin, constitute for 42.5% of the UAE’s workforce[10] and are subject to a range of human rights abuses. Workers typically arrive in debt to recruitment agents from home countries and upon arrival are often made to sign a new contract in English or Arabic which pays them less than had originally been agreed.[11] Visa and travel costs are typically added on to the original debt, and thus within hours of their arrival, workers often find that their debt-repayment time has increased significantly, possibly by years.

  • In September 2003 the government was criticised by Human Rights Watch for its inaction in addressing the discrimination against Asian workers in the emirate.[12]
  • In 2004 the United States Department of State has cited widespread instances of blue collar labour abuse in the general context of the United Arab Emirates.[13]
  • The BBC reported in September 2004 that "local newspapers often carry stories of construction workers allegedly not being paid for months on end. They are not allowed to move jobs and if they leave the country to go home they will almost certainly lose the money they say they are owed. The names of the construction companies concerned are not published in the newspapers for fear of offending the often powerful individuals who own them.".[14]
  • In December 2005 the Indian consulate in Dubai submitted a report to the Government of India detailing labour problems faced by Indian expatriates in the emirate. The report highlighted delayed payment of wages, substitution of employment contracts, premature termination of services and excessive working hours as being some of the challenges faced by Indian workers in the city.[15] The consulate also reported that 109 Indian blue collar workers committed suicide in the UAE in 2006.[16]
  • In March 2006 NPR reported that workers "typically live eight to a room, sending home a portion of their salary to their families, whom they don't see for years at a time." Others report that their salary has been withheld to pay back loans, making them little more than indentured servants.[17]
  • In 2007 the falling dollar meant workers were unable to service debts and the incidence of suicides among Indian workers had reportedly been on the increase.[18]
Construction workers from Asia on top floor of the Angsana Tower

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

2006 Workers' riots

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Life in the UAE
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On 21 March 2006, tensions boiled over at the construction site of the Burj Khalifa as workers upset over low wages and poor working conditions rioted, damaging cars, offices, computers, and construction tools. A Dubai Interior Ministry official said the rioters caused approximately US$1 million in damage. On 22 March most workers returned to the construction site but refused to work. Workers building a new terminal at Dubai International Airport went on strike in sympathy.[19]

Another strike took place in October 2007. Over 4,000 strikers were arrested. Most of them were released some days later and were then to be expelled and deported from Dubai.[20]

Government action

In the past, the UAE government has denied any kind of labor injustices and has stated that the accusations by Human Rights Watch were misguided.[21] Towards the end of March 2006, the government announced steps to allow construction unions. UAE labour minister Ali al-Kaabi said, "Laborers will be allowed to form unions."

The strikes and negative media attention provided exposure of this regional problem and in 2008 the UAE government decreed and implemented a “midday break” during summer for construction companies, ensuring laborers were provided several hours to escape the grueling heat. Illegal visa overstayers were assured amnesty and even repatriated to their home countries on governmental expense.[22]

Labor Law issues

The UAE has four main types of Labor laws:

  • Federal Labor Law – Applies to all the seven Emirates and supersedes free zone laws in certain areas.[23]

Labor laws generally favor the employer and are less focused on the rights of employees. The Ministry of Labor is criticized for loosely enforcing these laws, most notably late or no wage or overtime payment for both blue collar and white collar employees[26].[27][28]

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

Types of discrimination

Job discrimination based on ethnic origins is openly practiced and no law exists to prevent that. Job openings are advertised in major news papers, like Gulf News and Khaleej Times, with statements such as ‘UK/US educated’ or ‘Arabs only’.

Salary discrimination is commonplace with the highest paid jobs going to Emiratis, a process supported by the Emiratisation program forcing companies by law to hire a percentage of UAE citizens.[29][30][31]

The second highest salaries go to people of Western origins; U.S. Americans, Western European nationals, New Zealanders and Australians.[32] People from developed regions in Asia such as Japan, Singapore, Korea, do also get comparatively high salaries. People from South Asia, East Asia and Africa are offered and receive considerably less in various sectors of the UAE economy.[33]


The UAE has taken significant measures to alleviate the often difficult lives of migrant workers from the developing world who opt to seek labor abroad. Important steps taken include providing monthly electronic payments for workers, requiring safety and health standards for housing to limit unreasonable overcrowding, supplying a standard contract for domestic workers[34] as well as signing bilateral agreements with countries where majority of foreign labor originates. (Reference: UAE-US Relations) As of April 2007, the UAE also established contract standards for domestic workers which regulate working conditions, salary, vacation, flight arrangements and medical care. These standards are to be verified and enforced by governmental agencies when providing new visas ensuring compliance on a case by case basis.

To ensure the country was addressing all major and relevant concerns in regards to labor issues, the UAE held a forum with Asian labor-exporting countries in January 2008. Part of a larger effort called the Colombo Process, the “Abu Dhabi Dialogue” was the first time a meeting was hosted by a destination for the foreign laborers, and included participants from other GCC states as well as a Human Rights Watch observer.[35] Countries part of the Colombo Process included Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam.[36]

Human trafficking and prostitution

According to the Ansar Burney Trust (ABT), an illegal sex industry thrives in the emirates, where a large number of the workers are victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation, especially in Dubai. This complements the tourism and hospitality industry, a major part of Dubai's economy.[37]

Prostitution, though illegal by law, is conspicuously present in the emirate because of an economy that is largely based on tourism and trade. There is a high demand for women from Eastern Europe. According to the World Sex Guide, a website catering to sex tourists, Russian and Ethiopian women are the most common prostitutes, while Eastern European prostitutes are part of a well organized trans-Oceanic prostitution network.[38] The Government has been trying to curb prostitution. In March 2007, it was reported that the UAE has deported over 4,300 sex workers mainly from Dubai.[39][40]

Although a modern country, the UAE remains morally conservative with traditional values and has adopted significant measures to combat this regional problem. The government of the UAE has worked with law enforcement officials to build capacity and awareness through holding training workshops and implementing monitoring systems to report human rights violations. The system led to registration of ten human-trafficking related cases in 2007 and half as many penalized convictions.[41] Businesses participating in exploiting women and conducting illegal activities have licenses revoked and operations are forced to close. In 2007, after just one year, the efforts led to prosecution of prostitution cases rose by 30 percent. A year later, an annual report on the UAE’s progress on human trafficking measures was issues and campaigns to raise public awareness of the issue are also planned.[42] Internationally, the UAE has also led various efforts in combating human trafficking, particularly with the main countries of origin. The state has signed numerous bilateral agreements meant to regulate the labor being sent abroad by ensuring transactions are conducted by labor ministries and not profiting recruitment agencies.

In 2007, the UAE also took the unprecedented step in establishing a forum of countries, UN agencies, NGOs and governmental bodies.[43] Known as the Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (UN.GIFT), the government’s endowment of $15 million has generated significant cooperation among the union’s participants towards this common goal.[44]

Trafficking of children

A 2004 HBO documentary accuses the UAE of illegally using child jockeys in camel racing, where they are subjected also to physical and sexual abuse. Anti-Slavery International has documented similar allegations.[45]

The practice is officially banned in the UAE since the year 2002. The UAE was the first to ban the use of children under 15 as jockeys in the popular local sport of camel-racing when Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, UAE's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of State for Foreign Affairs announced the ban on July 29, 2002.[46] Announcing the ban, Sheikh Hamdan made it very clear that "no-one would be permitted to ride camels in camel-races unless they had a minimum weight of 45 kg, and are not less than 15 years old, as stated in their passports." He said a medical committee would examine each candidate to be a jockey to check that the age stated in their passport was correct and that the candidate was medically fit. Sheikh Hamdan said all owners of camel racing stables would be responsible for returning children under 15 to their home countries. He also announced the introduction of a series of penalties for those breaking the new rules. For a first offense, a fine of 20,000 AED was to be imposed. For a second offense, the offender would be banned from participating in camel races for a period of a year, while for third and subsequent offense, terms of imprisonment would be imposed.[47]

The Ansar Burney Trust,[48] which was featured heavily in the HBO documentary, announced that in 2005 the government of the UAE began actively enforcing a ban on child camel jockeys, and that the issue "may finally be resolved".[49]

Victim Support

Special funds to provide support for victims have been created such as Dubai’s Foundation for the Protection of Women and Children, Abu Dhabi’s Social Support Center, the Abu Dhabi Shelter for Victims of Human Trafficking and the UAE Red Crescent Authority. Services offered include counseling, schooling, recreational facilities, psychological support and shelter. Mainly women and children receive assistance and in certain cases are even repatriated to their home countries.[50]

The Sheikh Issa incident

A brother of the ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Issa bin Zayed Al Nahyan who holds no government post, is the subject of a lawsuit accusing him of torture brought by businessman Bassam Nabulsi of Houston, Texas, a former long-term adviser to the Al Nahyan.

As part of the lawsuit, Bassam Nabulsi published a video, taken at some time in 2005, showing Sheikh Issa torturing a man with a cattle prod and a spiked plank.[51]

In April 2009, an abridged version of the tape was posted by ABC News.[52][53] According to Nabulsi's lawyers, Sheikh Issa had tortured the victim, Afghan grain merchant Mohammed Shah Poor, because he felt that Shah Poor had cheated him in a business deal.[54]

In a statement to ABC News, the UAE Ministry of the Interior said it had reviewed the tape and acknowledged the involvement of Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al Nahyan, and stated, "The incidents depicted in the video tapes were not part of a pattern of behaviour." The government statement said its review found "all rules, policies and procedures were followed correctly by the Police Department."[55]

Responding to the government statement, Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch stated "If this is their complete reply, then sadly it's a scam and it's a sham. [...] It is the state that is torturing them, if the government does not investigate and prosecute these officers, and those commanding those officers." US congressman Jim McGovern called for a freeze on government aid to the UAE, and requested that Sheikh Issa be refused US visas. Nabulsi has also alleged that previously he had brought the existence of the torture tape, along with the involvement and collusion of UAE police, to the attention of a US official assigned to train UAE police, with little effect.[56]

The controversy over the torture tape has delayed recertification of a US-UAE nuclear power cooperation agreement.[57]

Government policies to protect human rights

The UAE authorities on the federal and local level have instituted a number of mechanisms and policies to improve the protection of human rights. For example, in 2004 the Dubai police opened designated departments in all emirate police stations that are mandated to protect the human rights of both victims and perpetrators of crime.[58]

The "UAE National Human Rights Report", prepared by a committee comprising representatives from various ministries and government institutions, with the participation of representatives from civil society and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and presented to the UN Human Rights Council on 4 December 2008 outlines efforts in the field of human rights observance and listed challenges facing the country, such as:

  • Providing more mechanisms to protect human rights, keeping up with national and international developments, and updating laws and systems
  • Meeting the state's expectations with regards to building national capabilities and deepening efforts for education on human rights and basic freedoms through a national plan
  • Striving to regulate the relationship between employers and workers in framework that preserves dignity and rights, and is in harmony with international standards, especially with regards to domestic help
  • Increasing the empowerment of women's role in society, increasing opportunities for involvement in a number of fields based on their skills and abilities
  • Working to confront human trafficking crimes by reviewing the best international practices in the field, working to update and improve the state's legislature in accordance with international standards, working to establish institutions and agencies to confront human trafficking crimes, and working to support the foundations of international cooperation with international organizations and institutions.

The UAE government is currently studying the establishment of a national human rights commission.[59]

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^ Gulf News - Pakistani TV channels may move out of Dubai Media City
  4. ^ Gulf News - Geo TV also plans to move out of Dubai
  5. ^ - Geo TV hints at options outside of Dubai
  6. ^ Essential Background: Overview of human rights issues in United Arab Emirates (UAE) (Human Rights Watch, 31-12-2005)
  7. ^ Human Rights Watch - Building Towers, Cheating Workers: Exploitation of Migrant Construction Workers in the United Arab Emirates
  8. ^ Human Rights Watch - Building Towers, Cheating Workers: Exploitation of Migrant Construction Workers in the United Arab Emirates - PDF
  9. ^ Khaleej Times - Workers Forced to ‘Bribe’ Sponsors to Get NoCs
  10. ^
  11. ^;jsessionid=utxuestt1d9p.alexandra
  12. ^ Dubai: Migrant Workers at Risk (Human Rights Watch, 19-9-2003)
  13. ^ "2004 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - United Arab Emirates". U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. 2005-02-28. Archived from the original on 2008-03-10. Retrieved 2008-03-10.  
  14. ^ "Workers' safety queried in Dubai", by Julia Wheeler, BBC News, September 27, 2004
  15. ^ "Indian government gets report on problems of Indians in UAE",, December 23, 2005
  16. ^ "Blood, Sweat and Tears". Al Jazeera English. 2007-08-15. Archived from the original on 2008-03-10. Retrieved 2008-03-10.  
  17. ^ "Dubai Economic Boom Comes at a Price for Workers", by Ivan Watson, NPR, March 8, 2006
  18. ^
  19. ^ "Workers Riot at Site of Dubai Skyscraper", by Jim Krane,, March 22, 2006
  20. ^ "Striking Workers Released From UAE Jail", by Barbara Surk, The Associated Press, October 31, 2007
  21. ^ UAE to allow construction unions BBC News, March 30, 2006, retrieved April 24, 2006
  22. ^ TimesOnline, "Growth brings slow progress on human rights," April 15, 2008;
  23. ^ UAE Federal Labor Law
  24. ^ TECOM - Labor Law
  25. ^ DIFC - Laws & Regulations
  26. ^ Human Rights Watch - VI. UAE Labor Law
  27. ^ Dubai Labor – Unofficial Expat Resource
  28. ^ Gulf News - 1,600 workers march from Ajman to Sharjah over unpaid wages
  29. ^
  30. ^ Gulf News - New emiratisation drive
  31. ^ Gulf News - Call for cautious Emiratisation
  32. ^ - Western expatriates earn most in Dubai - data
  33. ^ – Salary Survey Report 2008
  34. ^ UAE Interact, "Mohammed bin Zayed's contribution to anti human trafficking lauded," February 15, 2008;
  35. ^ UAE-US Relations; Fact sheet on Initiatives to Combat Human Rights, Accessed February 9, 2009;
  36. ^ International Labour Organization, Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour,
  37. ^ The Social Affairs Unit - Web Review: Dubai, Dubai - The Scandal and The Vice
  38. ^ Stoenescu, Dan. "Globalising Prostitution in the Middle East". American Center For International Policy Studies. Retrieved 2007-05-10.  
  39. ^ UAE deports 4,300 women 7days 2007
  40. ^ FRONTLINE/World - Rough Cut - Dubai: Night Secrets - The oldest profession in the newest playground
  41. ^ UAE-US Relations; Factsheet on "Initiatives to Combat Human Trafficking" Accessed February 9, 2009:
  42. ^ UAE Ministry of Labour: "The Protection of the Rights of Workers in the United Arab Emirates Annual Report 2007
  43. ^ UAE-US Relation: Factsheet on "Initiatives to Combat Human Trafficking," Accessed February 9, 2009:
  44. ^ UAE-US Interact, "Mohammed bin Zayed's contribution to anti human trafficking lauded" February 15, 2009:
  45. ^ Anti-Slavery - photo gallery - Child camel jockeys in the UAE
  46. ^ UAE enforces stringent steps to eradicate child jockeys, Khaleej Times, 24 May 2005
  47. ^ UAE enforces stringent steps to eradicate child jockeys, Khaleej Times, 24 May 2005
  48. ^ Ansar Burney Trust - Child Camel Jockeys - Modern Day Slavery
  49. ^
  50. ^ UAE-US Relations, "Initiatives to Combat Human Trafficking," Accessed February 9, 2009:
  51. ^ Day, Michael; Paul Harris (Sunday 26 April 2009). "Wealthy brother of UK football chief linked to gruesome Gulf 'torture tape'". The Observer. Retrieved 2009-04-26.  
  52. ^ "Torture Video". ABC News. 2009. Retrieved 2009-02-24.  
  53. ^ "ABC News Exclusive: Torture Tape Implicates UAE Royal Sheikh". ABC News. April 22, 2009. Retrieved 2009-02-24.  
  54. ^
  55. ^
  56. ^
  57. ^
  58. ^
  59. ^

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