United Arab Emirates

By Jose Valadez

I. Introduction

Flag of the United Arab Emirates

Flag of the United Arab Emirates

When one thinks of the United Arab Emirates, the cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai may come to mind. Images of skyscrapers, such as the famous Burj Khalifa, and sandy white beaches highlight the luxuriousness of this Middle Eastern country. With its fancy lifestyle and posh amenities, many would assume a country of this magnitude would offer a relaxed and free way of living. However, with a global score of 39.39 in 2017 on the World Press Freedom Index given by the Reporters Without Borders, the United Arab Emirates ranks 119 out of 180 countries. While their rank remained dormant in 2016, their global score on the WPFI was 36.73, indicating that their score the following year was a decrease of 2.66 points. Despite this, their ranking had increased by one since 2015, when they were ranked 120. In 2014, however, the country was ranked 118, which was the highest they have been ranked in the three-year span. Their global score in 2014, which was 36.03, was also their highest recorded score according to the WFPI. The trend for the United Arab Emirates can be described as a rollercoaster ride. The country was doing well in regard to freedom of the press, until they became more restrictive on the press in 2015. Since then, the country has made small improvements in becoming less restrictive. According to the watchdog organization Freedom House, the United Arab Emirates is labeled as “not free” due to its restrictive laws that suppress the freedom of expression and speech.

II. Historical Background

Located along the along the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula and bordering the countries of Saudi Arabia and Oman, the United Arab Emirates is a federation which consists of seven emirates. The largest of these emirates is Abu Dhabi, which not only serves as the nation’s capital, but is also host to the center of the oil industry that comprises most of the nation’s economy (Patterson & Crystal, 1999). Before being recognized as the United Arab Emirates, the seven emirates were known as the Trucial States. In 1820, the Trucial States formalized ties that allowed them to be ruled under the British empire in exchange for protection from pirates who, for centuries, used the State’s shores as refuge, and threatened the British trade with India. In 1971, Britain, whose imperial overreach was exhausted politically and bankrupt financially, decided to abandon its rule in the Trucial States. On Dec. 2, 1971, the Trucial States formally declared independence from Britain and called themselves the United Arab Emirates (Tristam, 2017). With a total area of 83,600 sq. km., which is roughly larger than the state of South Carolina, the United Arab Emirates has a total population of about 9.4 million Emiris. Of the 9.4 million Emiris, the median age for the nation is an astounding 30.3 years of age; the nation also has a life expectancy of about 77.7 years of age (The World Factbook, 2017).

This nation of young citizens is under the rule of their president, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed. After the death of his father, Sheikh Zayed, the United Arab Emirates Federal Council named Sheikh Khalifa president of the country in 2004 (United Arab Emirates profile – Leaders, 2015). The Federal Council, which is comprised of rulers of the seven emirates, is designated as the country’s highest legislative and executive body. Within this group, the council is tasked with selecting a president and a vice president, and the president appoints the prime minister, cabinet, and judges to serve on the Federal Supreme Court of the United Arab Emirates. The United Arab Emirates government functions under patriarchal rule with political allegiance given loyally to the leaders of the tribe, emirates, and federation. Thus, political parties are not permitted, and there are scarce democratically elected institutions. There is however, a Federal National Council which consists of 40 representatives; 20 of which are elected indirectly, while the other 20 are appointed by the rulers of the Federal Council. This non-legislative, consultative body, is where citizens can directly express their concerns to their leaders through traditional mechanisms such as open “majlis” or forum (Guillory, 2013)..

III. Free Speech

The United Arab Emirates is known as one of the most liberal countries in the world, as its citizens are guaranteed the fundamental rights to freedom of speech, whether that freedom is expressed verbally or in writing. Under Part Ⅲ of the Constitution entitled “Freedoms, Rights and Public Duties,” Article 26 states that “Personal liberty is guaranteed to all citizens”; Article 30 declares that “Freedom of opinion and of expressing that opinion verbally, in writing, or by any other medium of expression is guaranteed as provided in law”; Article 33 guarantees freedom of assembly (United Arab Emirates’s Constitution of 1971 with Amendments through 2009, 2018). However, should a citizens’ comments be detrimental to the government or its ruler, the triad of the judiciary, legislative, and executive branches will utilize their powers to limit this basic freedom. Ever since the expansion of social media and the internet, the government has gone to extreme measures to regulate and control content the government deems to be criticizing or offensive to government policy, ruling families, national security and defense, religion and foreign relations (Coleman, 2013). Since the rise of government protest that spread like wildfire across the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring (2011), the United Arab Emirates has done what it can to quell the flames of government criticism. Following the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the government passed a 2012 cybercrime law which, according to Reporters Without Borders, penalizes any journalist or citizen for criticizing the state, its rulers, or the religion of Islam. This law ousts bloggers who post opinions that defame the reputation of the country. The effect of this has been a plethora of citizen arrests and cases involving opinions that are in opposition of the government. Most notable are those opinions that are posted on online social media platforms such as Facebook or Twitter.

In April 2012, the United Arab Emirates arrested five activists, who were known as the “UAE 5,” for allegedly posting statements on an online forum in which they peacefully criticized the government and its rulers. The five men were charged in June under articles 176 and 8 of the penal code, which punish public insults of top officials. The men were convicted in November, but eventually had their sentences commuted by the president. Though free from prison, their passports had not been returned to them (UAE: Free Speech Under Attack Harassment, Arrests, Criminal Prosecutions, 2012). Another case involves comments posted to Twitter. On March 22, 2013, Abdullah Al-Hadidi was covering a high-profile freedom of speech case dubbed the “UAE 94.” Following the hearings of the case, Mr. Al-Hadidi took to Twitter to criticize both the outcome and process of the case. Upon being in violation of the United Arab Emirates penal law, Abu Dhabi penal law, and the cybercrime law, Mr. Al-Hadidi lost his appeal, and was sentenced to 10 months in the United Arab Emirates prisons. In describing their discretion, both the trial and appellate judges argued that his Twitter post had reported false news and had “malicious intent” (Abdullah Al-Hadidi (U.A.E. Twitter Case), 2013).

In conjunction with the previous case, the case involving the 94 government critics is the most prolific regarding the freedom of speech. In this case, authorities accused 94 citizens of establishing a secret organization with the intention to overthrow the government (Donaghy, 2013). Many of the defendants were associated with the Reform and Social Guidance Association, a group that supported democratic reform. Out of the 94 accused, 69 were convicted under violation article 180 of the Emirati Penal Code. Fifty-six citizens were sentenced to 10 years imprisonment, eight received 15-year prison sentences, and five others were only given a seven-year sentence. Of the 69 convicted, 25 were acquitted by the court (The Case of 94 Government Critics (U.A.E.), 2013). In a Reporters Without Borders report, authorities in 2017 arrested human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor under the accusation that he used social media to “publish false and misleading information that… damage the country’s reputation.” In 2018, he was still being detained.

IV. Free Press

In 1980, the United Arab Emirates government enacted a law that would muzzle any journalist who dared to publish anything harmful to the government. Entitled “Federal Law No. 15: Governing and Publications,” this law, particularly sections 70 to 85, prohibit the publication of any material that criticizes or slanders the country’s rulers, Islam, or the system of government. In 2014, the country enacted a counterterrorism law that prohibits any speech or publication that “antagonizes the government” (United Arab Emirates profile, 2017). Due to the vagueness in which the law is stated, many journalists, reporters, and citizens have been arrested and charged with defaming the image of the country and its top ruling officials. Defamation, in fact, is a criminal offense in the United Arab Emirates.

In November 2006, Dr. Yasser Al Nuaimi, a senior health ministry official, filed a libel suit against Muhammed Rashed Shehhi, the owner of the Majan news website. There was a separate case involving Khaled Alasley, the journalist who wrote the article at the center of the libel suit. Alasley was sentenced to five months in prison for “insulting” and “libeling” Dr. Yasser (Court closes libel case against website reporter, 2007). Mark Townsend, a journalist and former business editor for the Khaleej Times, had criminal defamation charges filed against him in August of 2009. The government alleged that Mr. Townsend wrote critical articles about the Khaleej Times, and thus found him in violation of Article 373 of the penal code. Mr. Townsend was sentenced to two years in prison and fined 20,000 dirhams (which is approximately $5400 U.S.) (United Arab Emirates, 2011).

On June 29, 2016, the United Arab Emirates government blocked an online news organization known as the Middle East Eye. The website notes that it has “extensively” reported on the country’s engagement in the war with Yemen and its allegations of human rights violations. The website is now labeled as “Prohibited Content Categories of the United Arab Emirates Internet Access Management Policy.” The “Eye” is the latest website to fall victim to the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority. The TRA targets any website that “offends against, is objectionable to, or is contrary to the public interest, public morality, public order, public and national security” (Shaker, 2016).

V. Critical Comparison

When compared side by side, the United Arab Emirates handles freedom of speech and press issues differently than the United States. For cases involving freedom of speech, the United Arab Emirates takes a stern approach. The cases involving the “UAE 5” and their punishment for voicing their opposition and dislike of leaders, is similar to the case of Near v. Minnesota decided in 1931. Jay Near was the publisher of the “The Saturday Press.” In his articles Near attacked public officials and charged them with conspiring in corruption with Jewish gangsters. Near was found in violation Minnesota’s “gag law”, which prohibited the publication of any content deemed “obscene, and lewd” or was “malicious, scandalous, or defamatory” in nature; Near was thus charged with being a nuisance. In a 5-to-4 decision, the United States Supreme Court deemed the Minnesota law – unconstitutional – and, therefore, in direct violation of Nears’ First Amendment rights. The court ruled that his newspaper was not a danger, nor did it present any real harm to the public, state, or country. To a degree, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the government may not censor or prohibit any publication, unless the government proved harm to national security, among other important interests (Near v. Minnesota ex rel. Olson, 1931).

The so-called “Twitter case” with Mr. Al-Hadidi and the punishment he received for publicly criticizing the court’s decision in the “UAE 94” case, can be compared to that of Pennekamp v. Florida, decided in 1946. John Pennekamp and the Miami Herald were found in contempt of court by the state of Florida after they published two editorials and a cartoon in which they were critical of court’s handling of criminal cases. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court overturned the contempt charges and ruled that the work in question did not pose a “clear and present danger” to the state (Pennekamp et al. v. Florida, 1946).

The prolific case of the 94 individuals conspiring to overthrow the United Arab Emirates government is comparable to Dennis v. United States, decided in 1951. In both cases, the United States and the United Arab Emirates see eye-to-eye when it involves an organization who wishes to reform and overthrow the government. In 1948, the United States arrested and charged leaders of the American Communist Party with violating the Smith Act. The act made it a crime to advocate or belong to any group that called for overthrow of the government. Advocacy was enough to warrant an arrest, as there was no requirement of proof that the plans may transpire. In a six to two decision, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of the party leaders and determined that the Smith Act did not “inherently” violate the first amendment. Mere advocacy of communist teachings created a “clear and present danger” that threatened the government (Dennis v. United States, 1951). However, in 1956, the Smith Act was overturned following the conclusion of Yates v. United States – which was decided on June 17, 1957. In this case, 14 Communist Party leaders in the state of California were charged under the Smith Act for teaching and advocating the overthrow of the government by force. In a 6 to 1 decision, the Supreme Court overturned the convictions and remanded the cases for retrial. In a majority opinion written by Justice Harlan, the Court ruled that the Smith Act violated the First Amendment rights of the accused. In addition, the Court made the distinction between the “advocacy and teaching of overthrow as a theory” and the “advocacy and teaching of action for the overthrow of the government” (Yates v. United States, 1957) This analyzation thus immediately ended the Smith Act. Another case similar in nature is Brandenburg v. Ohio, decided on June 9, 1969. Clarence Brandenburg, a leader in the Ku Klux Klan, gave a speech at a rally and was later convicted under the criminal syndicalism act – which made the advocation of crime, sabotage, violence, or unlawful methods of terrorism as a means of political reform illegal. It also outlawed the assemblage of any group to teach or advocate these doctrines. In a per curiam opinion, the Court ruled the Ohio law violated Brandenburg’s freedom of speech. The result from this decision was the birth of a test known as the imminent lawless action test. The test consists of two parts that evaluates speech acts: (1) speech can be prohibited if it is “directed at inciting or producing imminent lawless action” and (2) it is “likely to incite or produce such action” (Brandenburg v. Ohio, 1969). Since the decision of Brandenburg v. Ohio, the United States has taken a different approach when handling the free speech of organizations than the United Arab Emirates.

When analyzing defamation and libel laws between the United States and United Arab Emirates, it’s apparent the United States is more relaxed in how it handles these cases. The libel case involving Dr. Yasser Al Nuaimi, a public figure due to his position as a senior health ministry official, and Khaled Alasley. The U.S. counterpart for a case in this nature would be Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, decided in 1988. In this libel case, Jerry Falwell, a Fundamentalist minister and political figure, sued Hustler Magazine after they featured a “parody” advertisement which claimed that Falwell had a drunken incestuous relationship with his mother in an outhouse. In his lawsuit, Falwell sought monetary damages for libel, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional destress. In a unanimous decision for Hustler Magazine, Inc. the Supreme Court ruled that offensive statements about public figures is guaranteed by the First Amendment. In addition, they ruled that public figures, such as Jerry Falwell, may not recover damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress without evidencing that the offending publication contained false information made with “actual malice” (Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 1988).

The shutdown of the news organization, the Middle East Eye, is an example of the government intruding the boundaries of the press for reporting information they feel the citizens should know about. The United States encountered a similar situation in what would become one of the most prolific cases in U.S. history.; New York Times Company v. United States and United States v. Washington Post Co., decided on June 30, 1971. Known as the “Pentagon Papers Case”, President Nixon attempted to prevent the New York Times and Washington Post from publishing a classified Defense Department study detailing the history of United States activities in the Vietnam. In his argument, Nixon stated that prior restraint was obligatory to protect national security. Due to the magnitude surrounding this case, the Supreme Court took a mere four days to decide the outcome of the case. In a 6-to-3 decision, the Court decided, in a per curiam opinion, that the government did not overcome the presumption against prior restraint of the press. Justice Brennan stated, that because publication would not cause a threat to the safety of American forces, prior restraint was unjustified (New York Times Company v. United States & United States v. Washington Post Co., 1971). Therefore, the United States allows the press to publish, under certain conditions, any information they believe citizens of the nation should know, as opposed to the United Arab Emirates, who silenced a news source from doing their work.

VI. Conclusion

In conclusion, despite its booming economy and its expanding hub for media and technology, the United Arab Emirates little respect for its citizens’ rights to freedom of speech and press. Though it may be comparable to the United States in the sense that since the beginning of the new decade, technology has influenced the country’s growth, the comparisons end there. The United States, since the early twentieth century, has gone through many lengths to ensure the protection of its citizens’ unalienable rights, no matter how outlandish the circumstances may seem. The United Arab Emirates, however, has done anything in its power to muzzle the voices and censor the words of its citizens. It seems ironic that for a country which guarantees its citizens the fundamental rights to freedom of speech and expression, it finds innovative ways to restrict that right, especially in the age of technology the world now lives in. For a country blossoming with technological growth, the United Arab Emirates, since 2010, has tightened its grip on what its citizens say on social media sites. The media and journalists serve a greater risk by the government. Should the United Arab Emirates continue its iron grip on its citizens freedom of speech and press, it is plausible that the country’s world rank could decline despite its slight improvements. Observers should not be fooled by the lavish amenities, pristine beaches, and awe-amazing architecture the country has to offer. The measures taken by the United Arab Emirates to silence its citizens marks the horrors within this seemingly peaceful nation.


Abdullah Al-Hadidi (U.A.E. Twitter Case) (First Instance Court May 22, 2013).

Brandenburg v. Ohio, 492 (United States Supreme Court June 9, 1969).

Coleman, D. Y. (2013). United Arab Emirates Country Overview. CountryWatch Incorporated.

Court closes libel case against website reporter. (2007, December 3). Retrieved from Reporters Without Borders: https://rsf.org/en/news/court-closes-libel-case-against-website-reporter

Dennis v. United States, 336 (United States Supreme Court June 4, 1951).

Donaghy, R. (2013, May 7). UAE 94 Verdict: Unfair Trail and Torture Ensure the Story is Just Beginning. Retrieved from Huffington Post: https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/rori-donaghy/uae-94-verdict_b_3549671.html

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Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 86-1278 (United States Supreme Court February 24, 1988).

Near v. Minnesota ex rel. Olson, 91 (United States Supreme Court June 1, 1931).

New York Times Company v. United States & United States v. Washington Post Co., 1873 (United States Supreme Court June 30, 1971).

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Pennekamp et al. v. Florida, 473 (United States Supreme Court June 3, 1946).

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Yates v. United States, 6 (United States Supreme Court June 17, 1957).

This essay was last updated on April 30, 2018.

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