Speak Out, but Watch Your Back: Freedom of Speech and the United Arab Emirates

An Oasis of Tolerance?

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is widely considered the most liberal and tolerant of Middle Eastern countries.

Women are allowed to drive, there is a more liberal dress code, there are freedoms of speech, religion and communication. This is a paradise for equality compared to other Arabic countries and this was acknowledged when the UAE was elected to the UN Human Rights Council in 2012 for a three-year term. However, beneath the veil of justice and liberty there are still deeply ingrained problems that halt the progression of human rights within the country.

Migrant Workers Threatened

As the realisation that fossil fuels are a finite resource, money is being pumped into the tourist industries and tourism in the middle east has become an unstoppable force. Hotels, shopping centres and attractions have sprung up faster than an oil leak and finding enough Emirati labour to fulfil the demand for infrastructure is difficult so migrant workers have flocked to the area. The tourism, development and investment company (TDIC) has been brought under international criticism for its failure to secure basic rights for many migrant workers employed on building sites.

A particularly embarrassing example for the west was on Saadiyat island, a beautiful stretch of white beaches and blue water where The Louvre, Guggeheim and British Museum have all been investing in projects to bring more art and culture to the city of Abu Dhabi. When questioned about the state of workers conditions they were funding the Guggenheim spokesperson said that ‘every time they had been to the UAE the workers villages had been in excellent condition’ but independent investigations have discovered this is far from the truth.

Squalid conditions for workers were seen and companies have been found to be withholding wages to cover ‘recruitment costs’ ensure workers are trapped and unable to seek help. This situation is also going on in Qatar in preparation for the world cup where the anticipated influx of tourism is bringing pain and suffering to migrant workers desperate for a job.

Protest Silenced

Although freedom of speech is a quality that the UAE is praised for, the reality rarely matches up to the policy and laws that the Government supposedly upholds. Workers are repeatedly discliplined for striking against unfair pay and conditions, so when the authorities feel the workers are getting out of hand, they simply deport them.

When people in the UAE speak out they are aware of the risks, they are aware that their human rights could be ignored by officials at any moment and their civil liberties taken away.

Detaining prisoners without charge is a breach of rights that is becoming more and more common, as the UAE tries harder to silence anyone that questions its decisions or authority.  Prominent Emirati human rights activists have been detained for their work and in March last year 94 activists, who were denied legal aid, appeared in court, among them Mohammed al-Roken and Mohammed al-Mansoori, who themselves are human rights lawyers. Their crimes include ‘defaming the UAE’s image to force recognition of their organization and to allow their work to take place publicly in the UAE’ with the threat of 15 years imprisonment.

False Allegations

A particular focus of the Emirati legal system has been supposed members of reformist non-violent Islamist group al-Islah. They protest against the governments oppressive actions and laws. The UAE has reason to believe that there are links between al-Islah and the radical Muslim Brotherhood, but innocent people still get caught in the cross-fire, a doctor returning from Thailand, was detained for 9 months with no legal aid or arrest warrant, a case that is becoming all too familiar.

International Players


Key players in the international justice system like the USA and the UK have publically remained quiet about the situation in the UAE. The US is thought to have mentioned the issues privately but not pushed the nation too much as to affect the 3.5 billion dollar arms deal that it has with the country. When criticism of the UAE was made in the UK press, this was seen as a good enough reason not to invite UK oil company BP to its 2014 oil concession deals.


So as the spotlight intensifies upon the Middle East in the run up to the World Cup, what will be the focus of debate? Will the human rights campaigners be swept under the dust and rubble whilst the visitors gaze at the gleaming buildings, or will some serious and probing questions be put forward to the UAE government?

Izzy Sturt

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