The United Arab Emirates wants visa-free travel to the EU, but is denying dissidents a chance to travel.
The European Parliament voted last month to grant citizens from the United Arab Emirates visa-free travel in the Schengen zone. The UAE's foreign minister, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, said the vote reflected “a recognition made by the European Union of the UAE's achievements.” The reality is that the UAE lobbied hard to be the first in the Gulf Co-operation Council to get visa-free travel in the eurozone, threatening to impose visas on Europeans if it did not.
The UAE's appeal for reciprocity may appear reasonable, but could be seen as disingenuous since the UAE is aggressively restricting freedom of movement at home. UAE authorities have prevented rights activists and academics from entering the country and arbitrarily kept domestic dissidents from leaving.
Emirati activist Ahmed Mansoor will not be able to use visa-free travel in Europe. He has been unable to leave the UAE since authorities convicted him of insulting the ruler in November 2011 in a fundamentally unfair trial described by a civil liberties lawyer as ‘riddled with legal and procedural flaws'. Although Mansoor was pardoned and released, the authorities have refused to return his passport and have obstructed his efforts to retrieve it.
Scores of family members of people convicted in July after another manifestly unfair trial on charges that they attempted to overthrow the government because their ties to an Emirati Islamist group are also subject to travel bans.
In January, authorities detained Aisha al-Zaabi for several days after she tried to travel to Oman. Al-Zaabi, the wife of the exiled dissident Mohamed Saqer al-Zaabi, and their five children are barred from leaving the country.
In October, lawyers for Hassan Al-Mansoori attempted unsuccessfully to file a case challenging an apparent travel ban after interior-ministry authorities at Sharjah airport prevented him from leaving for Kuwait. Al-Mansoori is the son of the award-winning human rights lawyer Mohamed al-Mansoori, who is serving 15 years in prison. It is not clear how many activists and their family members are subject to travel bans, since the authorities apply them arbitrarily, with no right to challenge them. What is clear is that dissenting voices in the UAE pay a heavy price for exercising their right to free expression. The UAE has no qualms about violating its own constitution and the Arab Charter of Human Rights, which respectively guarantee the rights to free movement and to leave their country.
As for travelling to the UAE, in January, authorities in Dubai prevented one senior Human Rights Watch staff member from entering the country, and told two others as they left that they were no longer welcome. Representatives from the groups Reprieve and Alkarama were denied entry in 2013, and at least four academic experts on the Gulf have been denied entry in the last year.
The EU's own guidelines on exemptions from visa requirements provide for a human rights quid pro quo. “Respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms” is one of the criteria that the EU can take into consideration when deciding on visa exemptions. In the cases of Colombia and Peru – two of the 18 other countries whose nationals get the exemption – the EU took that requirement seriously. In 2012, the EU secured human-rights concessions from both countries as a condition for signing a three-way free-trade agreement that paved the way for visa-free travel.
Where the UAE is concerned, though, there have been no human-rights concessions, and its human-rights record has actually deteriorated since a European Parliament resolution expressed “great concern” about the rights climate in the country in October 2012.
Granting UAE citizens visa-free travel in the Schengen zone will bring economic benefits to Europe and facilitate the travel of many Emirati citizens. However, in the spirit of promoting free movement, the European Parliament should push to ensure that the UAE is not arbitrarily denying its own citizens the right to leave the country. MEPs should use this leverage and insist that the UAE not deny courageous people like Ahmed Mansoor their right to leave the country and not prevent EU citizens who are critical of the UAE from entering.