Freedom in the World 2023 - United Arab Emirates

/ 100
Political Rights 5 / 40
Civil Liberties 13 / 60
17 / 100 Not Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.


The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a federation of seven emirates led in practice by Abu Dhabi, the largest by area and richest in natural resources. Limited elections are held for a federal advisory body, but political parties are banned, and all executive, legislative, and judicial authority ultimately rests with the seven hereditary rulers. The civil liberties of both citizens and noncitizens, who make up an overwhelming majority of the population, are subject to significant restrictions.

Key Developments in 2022

  • Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the UAE president and ruler of Abu Dhabi, died in May, having already withdrawn from public life after a 2014 stroke. His half-brother, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, succeeded him in both posts.
  • A new penal code that took effect in January was criticized by human rights groups for its restrictions on civil and personal liberties, including provisions that partly reversed the 2020 decriminalization of extramarital sex.

Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1 0-4 pts
Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 0 / 4

The Federal Supreme Council, comprising the dynastic rulers of the seven emirates, is the country’s highest executive body. It selects a president and vice president from among its members, and the president appoints a prime minister and cabinet.

The emirate of Abu Dhabi has controlled the federation’s presidency since its inception in 1971. Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the president since 2004, died in May 2022; he was succeeded by his half-brother Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, who had long served as crown prince of Abu Dhabi and exercised most leadership functions after Sheikh Khalifa suffered a stroke in 2014.

The emirate of Dubai similarly controls the premiership. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum has served as ruler of Dubai and the UAE’s prime minister and vice president since 2006, when he succeeded his late brother in all three posts.

A2 0-4 pts
Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 1 / 4

The unelected Federal Supreme Council is also the country’s highest legislative authority, but it is advised by the 40-seat Federal National Council (FNC), which can review proposed laws and question government ministers.

Since 2006, half of the FNC’s members have been elected for four-year terms on a nonpartisan basis by an electoral college chosen by the rulers of each emirate, while the government directly appoints the other half. The size of the electoral college has expanded over time. For the 2019 elections it grew to 337,000 members, up from 224,000 in 2015, though this still fell far short of the entire voting-age citizen population. Close to 500 candidates vied for the 20 elected seats. Voter turnout remained low at about 35 percent, matching the 2015 level.

There are no elected legislative bodies in the individual emirates.

A3 0-4 pts
Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 0 / 4

The UAE’s electoral framework applies only to the advisory FNC, and it lacks universal suffrage. While the electoral college has expanded, and overseas voting was permitted for the first time in 2015, there is no public accountability for the procedures by which the rulers of each emirate draw up the lists of eligible voters. The geographical allocation of FNC seats results in significant overrepresentation for the smaller emirates.

B Political Pluralism and Participation

B1 0-4 pts
Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 0 / 4

Political parties are banned. All electoral candidates run as independents.

The authorities vigorously persecute opposition activists, particularly if they are suspected of belonging to the Association for Reform and Guidance (Al-Islah), a group formed in 1974 to advocate for democratic reform. The government has accused Al-Islah members of being foreign agents of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was designated as a terrorist organization in 2014.

Dozens of activists, civil society leaders, academics, and students remained behind bars during 2022 for offenses related to political dissent.

B2 0-4 pts
Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 0 / 4

The political system grants the emirates’ hereditary rulers a monopoly on power and excludes the possibility of a change in government through elections.

B3 0-4 pts
Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means? 1 / 4

The political choices available to eligible voters are severely limited in practice, and the alignments of both voters and candidates are heavily influenced by tribal networks.

B4 0-4 pts
Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 1 / 4

Approximately 90 percent of the UAE’s population consists of noncitizens who lack political rights and electoral opportunities, including thousands of stateless residents. There is no clear process for obtaining citizenship without Emirati parentage or marriage to an Emirati man; children of Emirati mothers and foreign fathers must apply for naturalization. In 2021, the prime minister announced that some foreigners, namely investors and certain skilled professionals, could seek naturalization under an amendment to the citizenship law.

Women make up about 50 percent of the FNC electoral college, and approximately 180 women ran as candidates in the 2019 elections, more than double the 78 who ran in 2015. Women won seven of the elected seats on the council, and the authorities appointed 13 women in keeping with a pledge to ensure equal representation in the 40-member body. In practice, however, ordinary women have little opportunity to organize independently and advance their interests through the political system.

C Functioning of Government

C1 0-4 pts
Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 0 / 4

Government policies are determined by the dynastic rulers of the seven emirates. The FNC performs only advisory functions and has struggled to arrange hearings with government ministers.

C2 0-4 pts
Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 2 / 4

The UAE is considered one of the least corrupt countries in the Middle East, and the government has taken steps to increase efficiency and streamline the bureaucracy. Nevertheless, there are no genuinely independent anticorruption mechanisms, and senior members of the ruling families are able to shield themselves and their associates from public scrutiny.

C3 0-4 pts
Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 0 / 4

The government generally lacks transparency, and despite legal provisions for access to public information, it remains difficult in practice. The State Audit Institution does not release public information about its reports, and its remit is limited to federal entities and state-owned companies, whereas most spending takes place in the individual emirates; the institution can conduct audits of an emirate’s entities if asked by its ruler.

Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 0-4 pts
Are there free and independent media? 0 / 4

The 1980 Publications and Publishing Law, considered one of the most restrictive press laws in the Arab world, regulates all aspects of the media and prohibits criticism of the government. Journalists commonly practice self-censorship, and outlets frequently publish government statements without criticism or comment. Media operate with more freedom in certain “free zones”—areas in which foreign media outlets can produce news content intended for foreign audiences—but the zones remain subject to UAE media laws and have additional regulatory codes and authorities.

Emirati-owned and UAE-based media outlets actively participated in a years-long, government-backed media campaign against Qatar. The government sought to influence reporting on Qatar even after it restored relations with that country in 2021.

A number of well-known commentators have been jailed in recent years for criticizing the authorities, expressing support for dissidents or human rights, or calling for political reform. Leading human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor, who received a 10-year prison term in 2018 for using social media to “publish false information that damages the country’s reputation,” remained behind bars in 2022.

In September 2022, the print edition of the Dubai-based newspaper Al-Roeya was shut down, and dozens of employees were dismissed, after the outlet ran an article about the impact of high fuel prices on UAE citizens. Al-Roeya was part of a company owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the UAE’s deputy prime minister and minister of presidential affairs; the firm claimed that the outlet was closed as part of its planned transformation into CNN Business Arabic, in partnership with the US-based global broadcaster.

D2 0-4 pts
Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 2 / 4

Islam is the official religion, and the majority of citizens are Sunni Muslims. Blasphemy is a criminal offense, as is proselytizing to Muslims by non-Muslim groups. The General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments provides regular guidance to Muslim preachers; it and a Dubai counterpart appoint the country’s Sunni imams. Shiite clergy have their own council to manage religious affairs.

Christian, Hindu, and Sikh places of worship have been built on plots of land donated by ruling family members. Pope Francis became the first Roman Catholic pontiff to visit the Arabian Peninsula when he traveled to the UAE in 2019 as part of a bid by Emirati officials to emphasize the country’s religious tolerance. Later that year, the authorities announced plans to open an Abrahamic Family House, to include a mosque, a church, and a synagogue; the facility was scheduled to open in 2023. Conditions for Jewish residents continued to improve after the UAE and Israel normalized relations in 2020. A Jewish Community Center in Dubai offers services to worshipers, and other members of the growing Jewish population have congregated at residential properties or rented spaces.

Score Change: The score improved from 1 to 2 due to a multiyear expansion in the ability of non-Muslim residents to observe their faiths openly, particularly with respect to the Jewish community since the government normalized relations with Israel in 2020.

D3 0-4 pts
Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 1 / 4

The Ministry of Education censors textbooks and curriculums in both public and private schools. Islamic education is required in public schools and for Muslims in private schools. Several foreign universities have opened satellite campuses in the UAE, although faculty members are generally careful to avoid criticizing the government. The UAE authorities have placed scholars and students who have criticized aspects of government policy on a unified Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) security list, barring them from the wider region. In one prominent case in 2018, a British doctoral student was sentenced to life in prison on espionage charges after a minutes-long trial, then pardoned under international pressure and deported.

D4 0-4 pts
Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 1 / 4

A number of laws give authorities broad discretion to punish individuals’ speech on sensitive topics. A 2014 counterterrorism law prescribes punishments including the death penalty for offenses like “undermining national security” and possession of material that opposes or denigrates Islam. A 2015 law against hate speech and discrimination contained loosely worded definitions and criminalized a wide range of free-speech activities. A new cybercrime law that took effect in January 2022, replacing its 2006 and 2012 predecessors, features a broad definition of unlawful content; it bans any material that could harm state interests or public confidence in state institutions, among other provisions, and assigns penalties of up to life in prison for use of the internet to oppose the existing system of government. A new penal code that also took effect in January contains similarly expansive prohibitions on speech including false news, defamation, and criticism of the state and its symbols. These and other criminal laws have been actively enforced, including against ordinary social media users.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has reported that the authorities systematically persecute the relatives and associates of jailed or exiled dissidents, for example by revoking their citizenship, withholding identity documents, banning travel, denying them access to education and employment, and subjecting them to surveillance and intimidation. Such practices serve as a further deterrent to unfettered speech.

State security agencies engage in extensive surveillance and hacking activities aimed at perceived opponents of the government. They monitor public and private online communications for critical speech and are believed to use advanced commercial spyware products.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 0-4 pts
Is there freedom of assembly? 1 / 4

The government places tight legal constraints on freedom of assembly. Public meetings require government permits, and unauthorized political or labor protests are subject to dispersal by police. The new penal code that took effect in January 2022 retained existing restrictions on demonstrations, which are rare in practice.

E2 0-4 pts
Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 0 / 4

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) must register with the Ministry of Social Affairs and can receive government subsidies, though they are subject to many restrictions. International human rights groups have been denied entry to the UAE. Local human rights activists are at serious risk of detention, prosecution, and mistreatment in custody, and their relatives may be subject to various forms of harassment.

E3 0-4 pts
Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 1 / 4

Workers—most of whom are foreign—do not have the right to form unions, bargain collectively, or strike. They can seek collective redress for grievances through state mediation or the courts, and the government sometimes arranges concessions and settlements. Workers occasionally protest against unpaid wages and poor working and living conditions, but such demonstrations are typically dispersed by security personnel, and noncitizens who participate risk deportation. Professional associations require government licenses and are closely monitored by the authorities.

In May 2022, food-delivery drivers accused the London-based firm Deliveroo of violating the UAE’s labor laws and went on strike to protest reductions in pay and increases in working hours. The rare strike action forced the company to suspend its planned changes to compensation and scheduling.

F Rule of Law

F1 0-4 pts
Is there an independent judiciary? 0 / 4

The judiciary is not independent, with court rulings subject to review by the political leadership. Judges are appointed by executive decree, and the judiciary as an institution is managed largely by executive officials. Many judges are foreigners working on short-term contracts.

F2 0-4 pts
Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 1 / 4

Detainees are often denied adequate access to legal counsel during interrogations, and lengthy detention without charge is not uncommon. Judges are empowered to extend such detention indefinitely. Systematic violations of international due process standards have been observed in numerous high-profile trials involving political dissidents, human rights defenders, and foreigners, among others. Some of those convicted have their detentions arbitrarily extended after their sentences are complete. For example, many of the individuals who were arrested in 2012 and convicted in 2013 as part of a deeply flawed mass trial of 94 dissidents—known as the UAE 94—were kept in detention during 2022 despite the expiration of their prison terms.

F3 0-4 pts
Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 1 / 4

The government has been criticized by international human rights organizations for failure to investigate allegations of torture and mistreatment in custody, including denial of medical care. Detainees regularly report abuse by the authorities. Prison officials have allegedly imposed harsher conditions of confinement on Ahmed Mansoor since he protested or denounced his mistreatment in previous years.

Sharia (Islamic law) courts sometimes impose flogging sentences for offenses including drug use, prostitution, and extramarital sex.

F4 0-4 pts
Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 1 / 4

Noncitizens and foreign workers commonly experience discrimination and risk deportation for relatively minor offenses. Women face legal and societal discrimination on a variety of issues, including employment. Same-sex sexual relations can draw harsh criminal penalties under vaguely worded morality laws, and these provisions were retained in the new penal code that took effect in January 2022. LGBT+ people are also subject to widespread social stigma. A code of conduct for teachers that was issued ahead of the new school year in September 2022 directed educators to “refrain from discussing gender identity, homosexuality or any other behavior deemed unacceptable to UAE’s society.”

G Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

G1 0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 1 / 4

Emirati citizens face few apparent restrictions on movement within the UAE or on their ability to change their place of employment, though societal norms sometimes constrain a woman’s ability to work or travel without the consent of her husband, father, or other male guardian.

Under the kafala system, migrant workers’ legal status is tied to their employers’ sponsorship, meaning they can be punished or deported for leaving employment without meeting certain criteria. Stateless residents’ freedom of movement is limited by their lack of travel documents; under a government program, many stateless people have received passports from the Comoros that ease travel and other activities but do not confer full citizenship.

G2 0-4 pts
Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 1 / 4

The UAE has enacted reforms in recent years to ease procedures for establishing and operating businesses. However, the government and ruling families exercise considerable influence over the economy and are involved in many of the country’s major economic and commercial initiatives, limiting the space for independent business activity.

Citizens of the UAE and other GCC states are able to own property. In 2019, the emirate of Abu Dhabi allowed foreigners to own freehold property in designated investment zones. Dubai has permitted non-GCC nationals to own property in designated zones since 2001.

Women generally receive smaller inheritances than men under Sharia, and women are excluded from state benefits aimed at supporting home ownership. A law implemented in the emirate of Abu Dhabi in 2021 allowed non-Muslim residents to benefit from new inheritance rules.

G3 0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 1 / 4

Women are generally placed at a distinct disadvantage under laws governing marriage and divorce. Among other disparities, a Muslim woman’s male guardian must approve her marriage. Muslim women are forbidden to marry non-Muslims, while Muslim men may marry Christian or Jewish women. Some categories of extramarital sex are criminal offenses, which deters victims from reporting rape. No laws prohibit spousal rape. A measure adopted in 2019 introduced orders of protection and new criminal penalties to address domestic violence, but its wording appeared to allow some forms of control or punishment by male guardians.

In 2020, the government announced changes to Sharia-based laws that decriminalized consensual sex and cohabitation by unmarried heterosexual couples; eliminated penalties for the possession, purchase, or consumption of alcohol by people aged 21 or older; and repealed legal provisions that assigned lighter penalties for “honor crimes” against women. The amendments would also allow couples who married in another country to adhere to that country’s divorce and inheritance laws. The updated penal code that took effect in January 2022 reintroduced criminal penalties for unmarried couples in some situations, for example by allowing the husband or male guardian of a woman in such a relationship to file charges.

In 2021, the emirate of Abu Dhabi announced a new law on divorce, inheritance, and child custody concerns for non-Muslims; among other things, the law allowed for joint-custody arrangements and civil marriage. The emirate also announced a new court to adjudicate matters under the new law.

G4 0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 1 / 4

Economic disparities persist between UAE citizens living in more and less affluent emirates and between citizens and the noncitizen majority. Foreign workers are often exploited and subjected to harsh working conditions, physical abuse, and withholding of passports, with little to no access to legal recourse. A series of ministerial decrees issued in 2015 aimed to give migrant workers more flexibility to terminate employment under certain conditions. Foreign household workers were not covered by those decrees or by labor laws in general, leaving them especially vulnerable. A law adopted in 2017 guaranteed such household workers basic protections and benefits including sick leave and daily rest periods, though they were inferior to those in the national labor law, and household workers would still be unable to leave their employers without a breach of contract.