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United Arab Emirates

Events of 2023

The Al Wasl Dome at Expo City during the COP28 UN Climate Summit, December 2, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

© 2023 AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) invests in a strategy to paint the country as progressive, tolerant, and rights-respecting while carrying out its zero-tolerance policy toward dissent. Many activists and dissidents remain detained, particularly those incarcerated in relation to the “UAE94” case, for exercising their rights to free expression and association. UAE-based migrant workers face widespread abuses, including escalating climate risks, and these abuses contribute to climate injustice in multiple ways.

In 2023, the UAE hosted the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) and sought to use the conference as a means of burnishing its image while continuing to push for the expansion of fossil fuels. There has been no accountability for abuses related to the UAE’s leading role in the international coalition conducting military operations in Yemen, and it previously provided support for certain Yemeni forces who have committed grave abuses over the past several years.

Freedoms of Expression, Assembly, and Association

Scores of activists, academics, and lawyers are serving lengthy sentences in UAE prisons following unfair trials on vague and broad charges that violate their rights to free expression and association. In advance of the COP28 climate summit hosted by the UAE, Emirati civil society groups demanded that UAE authorities immediately and unconditionally release all those detailed solely for exercising their human rights, end all abuse and harassment of detained critics, and amend all laws that violate human rights.

As of March 2023, Emirati authorities continued to incarcerate with no legal basis at least 51 Emirati prisoners who completed their sentences between 1 month and nearly 4 years ago. The prisoners are all part of the grossly unfair “UAE94” mass trial of 69 government critics, whose convictions violated their rights to free expression, assembly, and association. UAE authorities used baseless counterterrorism justifications to continue holding them past their completed sentences. Some prisoners completed their sentences as early as July 2019.

In May 2023, Jordanian authorities detained a dual Emirati-Turkish citizen, Khalaf Abdul Rahman al-Romaithi, and extradited him back to the UAE, where he is at serious risk of arbitrary detention, unfair trial, and possibly torture. Al-Romaithi’s family and lawyers have not heard from him nor known his whereabouts since May 9.

Ahmed Mansoor, a leading Emirati human rights defender, remained imprisoned in an isolation cell for a sixth year. Human Rights Watch, alongside other human rights organizations, urged the US and other governments to publicly call on UAE authorities to immediately and unconditionally release Mansoor ahead of COP28.

As of March 2023, authorities in the UAE had arbitrarily detained between 2,400 and 2,700 Afghans for over 15 months in the “Emirates Humanitarian City,” a humanitarian logistics hub in Abu Dhabi. The Afghans were evacuated to the UAE from Afghanistan.

The UAE deploys some of the world’s most advanced surveillance technologies to pervasively monitor public spaces, internet activity, and even individuals’ phones and computers, in violation of their right to privacy, freedom of expression, freedom of association, and other rights. The authorities block and censor content online that they perceive to be critical of the UAE’s rulers, government, and policies and any topic, whether social or political, that authorities may deem sensitive.

The penal code and Cybercrime Law further curtail space for dissent. Article 174 of the penal code stipulates a minimum prison sentence of five years and a minimum fine of 100,000 dirhams (Dh) (about US$27,225) if the act takes place in “writing, speech, drawing or by statement or using any means of technology or through the media.” Two provisions may directly affect the work of journalists based in the UAE. Article 178 provides for sentences of 3 to 15 years in prison for anyone who, without a license from the appropriate authorities, collects “information, data, objects, documents, designs, statistics or anything else for the purpose of handing them over to a foreign country or group or organization or entity, whatever its name or form, or to someone who works in its interest.” The Cybercrime Law contains an entirely new section entitled, “Spreading Rumors and False News.”

Migrant Workers

The UAE’s kafala (sponsorship) system ties migrant workers’ visas to their employers, preventing them from changing or leaving employers without permission. Employers can falsely charge workers for “absconding” even when escaping abuse, which puts them at risk of fines, arrest, detention, and deportation, all without any due process guarantees. Many low-paid migrant workers were acutely vulnerable to situations that amount to forced labor, including passport confiscation, wage theft, and illegal recruitment fees. Trade unions are not permitted, which prevents workers from collectively bargaining. The UAE still does not have a non-discriminatory minimum wage.

The labor law allows workers to take on flexible, temporary, part-time, and remote work and also contains explicit language prohibiting sexual harassment and discrimination.

UAE-based migrant workers, who form 88 percent of the UAE population, are exposed to risks of extreme heat without adequate protections. Human Rights Watch documented how extreme heat exposure is a serious health hazard for migrant workers in the UAE. The UAE continues to impose ineffective summer midday bans that prohibit outdoor work between 12:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. between June 15 to September 15, despite evidence of its ineffectiveness in protecting workers. Workers described serious and chronic health conditions that could be linked to extreme heat exposure. Cumulatively, these work conditions often lead to serious health consequences, including heat-related deaths.

Additionally, Human Rights Watch has documented how widespread labor abuses that migrant workers face like wage theft and exorbitant recruitment fees have restricted workers’ abilities to support their families back home in climate-vulnerable countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal, including during extreme weather events often linked to climate change.

The authorities issued Federal Decree-Law No. 9 of 2022 concerning Domestic Workers, updating its 2017 law on domestic workers, which guarantees some labor rights. The law now prohibits discrimination and violence against domestic workers by employers and imposes obligations on recruitment agencies to provide information to domestic workers, refrain from charging them with recruitment costs, and refrain from violence against domestic workers. However, it is still weaker than the labor law and falls short of international standards. Moreover, domestic workers continue to report being confined to homes or agency offices, wage theft, and verbal, physical, and sexual violence by employers and recruiters.

Climate Change Policy and Impacts

In November and December, the UAE hosted the UN Climate Change Conference (COP28). The UAE, one of the world’s largest oil producers, sought to use the conference as a means of burnishing its image while continuing to push for the expansion of fossil fuels, undermining efforts to confront the climate crisis and protect human rights. Funds from the UAE’s vast fossil fuel industry provide the majority of the UAE’s government revenue.

The United Arab Emirates’ fossil fuel industry contributes to toxic air pollution that creates major health risks for UAE citizens and residents and contributes to the global climate crisis. Migrant workers described breathing air that burned their lungs, feeling out of breath at work, having itchy skin, and other health problems that they believe could be related to toxic air. 

On January 12, the UAE appointed Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber as president of COP28. He is the CEO of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) and founded the state-owned renewable energy company Masdar in 2006. Al Jaber maintained his role at ADNOC while serving as the UAE’s special envoy for climate change and leading the conference.

As one of the world’s top 10 crude oil producers, the UAE heavily contributes to the climate crisis, which is taking a growing toll on human rights around the globe. The government is planning to expand fossil fuel operations, which, according to the Climate Action Tracker, is inconsistent with the Paris Agreement goal to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, necessary to limit the most catastrophic climate outcomes.

Women’s Rights

UAE authorities introduced minor amendments to the Federal Personal Status Law in 2019 and 2020: a woman is no longer obliged to “obey” her husband under article 56, and she no longer loses her right to spousal maintenance (nafaqa) from her husband if she leaves the marital home or refuses to travel abroad with her husband “without a lawful excuse.” However, article 56 still obliges a woman to maintain the home, and article 71 still provides that a woman can lose her right to spousal maintenance from her husband if she abandons the marital home, prevents her husband from entering the marital home, or does not abide by her marital obligations stated in law. A woman is not allowed to move residence with her children without their father’s permission.

The Federal Personal Status Law applies to all UAE nationals and foreign nationals except for non-Muslims, who can have their own religious laws apply to them. In November 2021, the Abu Dhabi authorities issued a new law on Civil Marriage and Its Effects in Abu Dhabi providing for a civil marriage with improved protections for women and mostly equal rights between spouses relating to marriage, divorce, and decisions relating to children. However, it only applies to non-Muslim foreign national couples residing in Abu Dhabi; as such, it created a different set of rights, discriminating against women based on their religion, nationality, and where they reside.

Women students attending some state universities face restrictions, including needing parental or male guardian permission for off-campus activities such as joining field trips or leaving campus accommodations.

The 2021 penal code criminalizes consensual nonmarital sex between men and women prosecuted on the basis of a complaint by a husband or male guardian with a minimum sentence of six months’ imprisonment. It also criminalizes having a child outside of marriage, punishable with no less than two years in prison for both parents unless the couple marry and register their child separately or together acknowledge the child and obtain a birth certificate and other official documents. The law disproportionately affects women as pregnancy can serve as evidence of the so-called crime and it only allows male relatives to complain about and forgive sex outside marriage.

The Federal Personal Status Law provides that the father is the default guardian of any child with the authority to decide their child’s supervision, education, and direction in life. In 2023, the UAE authorities, in a written response to Human Rights Watch, confirmed that it is the obligation of the father, or whoever has legal guardianship over the child according to the child’s nationality, to apply for their birth certificate and passport, “as passports are an issue related to the nationality of the country they belong to.” Emirati women cannot pass nationality to their children on an equal basis with men.

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

The 2021 penal code criminalizes “sodomy” with an adult male. It also continues to criminalize vaguely defined acts, allowing the authorities to arrest people for a wide range of behaviors, including public displays of affection, gender nonconforming expressions, and campaigns promoting the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.

Article 411 of the penal code criminalizes and punishes a “flagrant indecent act” and any saying or act that offends public morals with a prison sentence or a fine of Dh1,000 to Dh100,000 (about $270 to $27,000). If it is a repeat offense, the punishment is at least three months’ imprisonment and a fine of Dh10,000 to Dh200,000 (about $2,700 to $54,000).

The UAE’s federal penal code punishes “any male disguised in female apparel and [who] enters in this disguise a place reserved for women or where entry is forbidden, at that time, for other than women” with one year’s imprisonment, a fine of up to Dh10,000 (about $2,700), or both. In practice, transgender women have been arrested under this law even in mixed-gender spaces.

Key International Actors

The UAE invited Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a leader credibly implicated in rampant atrocities, to COP28. If Assad attends, it would be his first appearance at a global conference since before the outbreak of the Syrian war in 2011.

The United States provided logistical and intelligence support to Saudi and UAE-led coalition forces. A 2022 internal report from the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) found serious gaps in US government oversight of how arms sold to Saudi Arabia and the UAE were being used.