Human rights in the Middle East and North Africa: Review of 2019; United Arab Emirates

The authorities, particularly the State Security Agency (SSA), subjected detainees, including foreign nationals, to arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and enforced disappearance. The authorities also restricted freedom of expression, imprisoning government critics and holding them in dire conditions. In a positive development in women’s rights, almost 200 women stood in the Federal National Council (FNC) elections in October, more than double the number in the last elections; still, women continued to face discrimination in law and in practice. On migrants’ rights, the authorities removed the job title criteria for sponsorship, which allowed more migrant workers to sponsor family members to live in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). However, migrant workers remained tied to employers under the kafala (sponsorship) system, which made them vulnerable to labour abuses and exploitation. The UAE continued to deny nationality to thousands of individuals who were born within its borders. While no executions were reported, courts continued to issue death sentences.


The UAE continued to co-lead the coalition in the armed conflict in Yemen, a coalition that is implicated in war crimes and other serious violations of international law. The UAE also illicitly diverted weapons and military equipment to militias in Yemen (see Yemen entry).

The UAE supported the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA), which committed serious violations of international law in Libya. The UAE also provided arms to the LNA and operated drones on its behalf, in violation of a UN arms embargo (see Libya entry).

The UAE remained a member of the coalition imposing economic and political sanctions on Qatar, along with Bahrain, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Arbitrary detention and torture

Amnesty International documented several cases in which the rights of detainees were disregarded. In these cases, most often involving the State Security Agency (SSA), detainees were arrested without warrants, held incommunicado for weeks or months and tortured or otherwise ill-treated. In some cases, detainees were held in degrading conditions.

Alia Abdelnoor Mohamed Abdelnoor, who had terminal cancer, died in May while chained to a hospital bed in al-Ain, a city in Abu Dhabi Emirate. After her arrest by the SSA in 2015, she was held in solitary confinement and forcibly disappeared for three months. At the time of her death, she was serving a 10-year prison sentence on vague and unsubstantiated “terrorism” charges, based on forced “confessions”.

Foreign nationals were among those arbitrarily detained and ill-treated. On 15 May, three Lebanese men were convicted on terrorism-related charges after being detained by the SSA, for long periods incommunicado, and then subjected to an unfair trial. One received a sentence of life imprisonment and the others received 10-year sentences. The State Security Prosecutor accused them of acting on behalf of the Lebanese party and armed group Hizbullah. One of the defendants, Abdel Rahman Chouman, told the court he had been tortured to make him “confess”.

Lebanese prisoner Ahmad Ali Mekkaoui was placed in incommunicado detention in April after new charges were imposed on him “for harming the reputation of the UAE” following a television interview in which his sister and his Lebanese lawyer spoke about his case. He was serving a 15-year prison sentence after being convicted on terrorism-related charges in 2016 and arrested by the SSA in 2014. During his trial, he described being tortured, including by being anally raped with a metal rod. In 2017 the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that his detention was arbitrary.

Concerns remained regarding the freedom of movement and wellbeing of Latifa bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, daughter of Dubai’s ruler. She was detained at sea by Indian and UAE security forces in 2018 and forcibly returned to the UAE, after which she was only seen once in a staged photo opportunity.

Freedom of expression

The authorities continued to arbitrarily detain and prosecute peaceful dissenters, effectively stifling criticism of the government. Dozens of prisoners of conscience continued to languish in detention, in dire conditions.

Prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor remained in detention after being sentenced in 2018 to 10 years in prison for comments posted on social media. He went on hunger strike in March for four weeks to protest against prison conditions and his sentence, and again in September for at least 44 days after he was beaten for his protests, according to the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, citing a local source.

Prisoners of conscience Nasser bin Ghaith, an academic, and Mohammed al-Roken, a human rights lawyer, remained incarcerated.

The authorities released Osama al-Najjar more than two years after he had finished serving his prison sentence. In 2017, the Public Prosecution had requested the extension of his detention on the pretext that he remained a threat. He was originally imprisoned for tweets addressed to the Minister of Interior expressing concern about the ill-treatment of his father in prison.

A Reuters investigation exposed the UAE’s involvement in “Project Raven”, an initiative in which former US intelligence operatives reportedly helped the UAE keep individuals, including human rights activists, under surveillance across the globe with no judicial oversight.

Women's rights

In a positive development, almost 200 women stood in the Federal National Council (FNC) elections in October, more than double the number in the last elections. This followed a decree by President Al Nahyan calling for women to make up half of the FNC. Ultimately, seven women were elected and 13 were appointed to the 40-member FNC.

However, women continued to face discrimination in law and in practice. For example, the Personal Status Law of 2005 states that “a husband’s rights over his wife” include the wife’s “courteous obedience to him” (Article 56), and places conditions on a married woman’s right to work or leave the house (Article 72). Under Article 356 of the Penal Code, “debasement of honour with consent” is punishable by one year or more in prison. On the basis of this law, a Swedish-run hospital in Ajman Emirate was forced to report pregnant, unmarried women to the police. In some cases these referrals have led to prosecution and deportation.

The government failed to adequately protect women from sexual and domestic violence. Under Article 53 of the Penal Code, “a husband’s discipline of his wife” is “considered an exercise of rights”, language that can be read as official sanction of spousal abuse.

Migrants' rights

Migrant workers remained tied to employers under the kafala (sponsorship) system, making them vulnerable to labour abuses and exploitation. In a positive development, the authorities removed the job title criteria for sponsorship, allowing more residents to sponsor family members to live in the UAE.

The UAE maintained its no-minimum wage policy. This had a particularly negative impact on migrant workers, who comprised more than 90% of the country’s workforce. Unlike UAE nationals, migrant workers did not receive government allowances for housing, subsidized health care or other services and were therefore dependent on their wages in order to access essential services. Migrants’ wages were typically low relative to the cost of living in the UAE, posing a risk to their right to just and favourable conditions of work, and their right to an adequate standard of living.

Late or non-payment of wages was common, leaving hundreds of low-paid migrant workers stranded in poor living conditions. Mercury MENA, an engineering company, failed to pay many of its workers for more than two years. The workers’ situation remained unresolved at the end of 2019.

Reports continued of migrant workers being fined for overstaying their visas and other immigration violations. Because migrants were unable to pay such fines, which were often too high for them to afford, many were held indefinitely in detention.


The UAE continued to deny nationality to at least 15,000 individuals who were born within its borders and had no other nationality. This effectively rendered them stateless and deprived them of a range of state services, such as free education and health care.

Death penalty

While no new executions were reported, courts continued to issue new death sentences, primarily against foreign nationals for violent crimes.