Censorship, Imprisonment, Exploitation: Human Rights in the United Arab Emirates

Jeremy Jingwei

7 June 2018

Migrant construction workers in Dubai.

Migrant construction workers in Dubai.


Portrayals of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in popular culture as a land of extravagance, where luxury cars are the norm, architects’imaginations know no limit, and entertainment of all forms is bountiful, have imparted an image of a flourishing state. Although some of the lavish representations of the United Arab Emirates—the cars, the buildings, the casinos—are rooted in reality, there is a darker side of the UAE that remains largely unnoticed, overshadowed by the apparent wealth and opulence of the state. Unbeknownst to many who travel to major centres like Dubai and Abu Dhabi for pleasure, institutions within the UAE’s governmental framework are actively neglecting and suppressing the human rights of residents.

The UAE, has no fully democratically elected institutions. However, it remains one of the richest nations in the Persian Gulf and holds a significant amount of international clout.

The prevalence of human rights abuses perpetrated by companies and political entities within the UAE are astonishing to those who have not been paying close attention. The recent arrest and subsequent sentence of award-winning human rights activist Ahmed Mansour exhibits the substantial degree of censorship within the state. Mansour was sentenced to 10 years in jail for publishing false information and harming national unity by calling for the release of a detained journalist.

Mansour’s story is not an anomaly, rather it is one of many instances where the state has imprisoned human rights advocates and social media activists. Since the Arab Spring uprising, the UAE has been cracking down on freedom of expression and journalism, especially on social media sites. The UAE has also censored academic freedom, as evidenced by their detainment and forced disappearance of prominent Emirati academic Nasser bin-Ghaith, who was recently sentenced to 10 years in prison.

These harsh punitive measures against critics of the government are justified under the UAE’s 2014 anti-terror law, Terrorism Law no. 7. The law uses broad terminology to define what constitutes terrorism, opening the door for the detention of peaceful dissenters on the basis of antagonizing the state. Following the institution of this law, 10 men were arbitrarily detained and reportedly subjected to repeated beatings, electric shock, and sleep deprivation until they confessed to terror related crimes.  

However, human rights abuses are amplified when considering migrant workers in the UAE. Migrant workers, primarily from South and East Asia, make up around 95 percent of the private sector workforce in the UAE. Government statutes provide little legal protection for 5migrant workers who often arrive in perpetual debt to their visa-sponsors. The migrants become debt slaves, toiling away until they can pay off the exorbitant fees paid to the recruitment companies. Companies also often limit the mobility rights of their workers by taking away their passports illegally. These factors, coupled with the lack of a minimum wage and the wage-exploitation of incoming migrants, has created access to abundant and cheap migrant labour.

As the UAE shifts towards a more tourism and culture-based industry, it becomes evident that what sustains the country’s apparent wealth and extravagance is the wage-exploitation of these workers. Reports from the construction of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building and a popular tourist attraction, indicate that workers were paid extremely low wages and subject to little health and safety oversight.  

Some argue that the UAE is not directly culpable for the exploitation of migrant workers, as it has recently made provisions for migrant workers to obtain vacation days, medical insurance and contract assurance.

However, the UAE has failed to proactively correct the employers’ wrongs. Human Rights Watch states that it has “failed to create mechanisms to investigate, prosecute, penalize, or remedy breaches in [migrant labour] law.” Furthermore, migrant workers have been unable to seek any meaningful recourse from the judiciary, making it impossible for precedent to be set.

Despite the documented human rights abuses, the UAE has maintained positions in important international institutions, including a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Should corrective action be taken in the UAE, it must derive from the cumulative efforts of its own government as well as other foreign governments and international organizations. The UAE must address issues of abuse and wage-exploitation by actually enforcing meaningful punitive measures on employers who violate migrant labour laws. Furthermore, they must overhaul their political institutions to respect due process and the rule of law, especially when considering those who are disproportionately affected by miscarriages of justice.

Foreign governments, especially those with the most international bargaining power, must influence the UAE to enforce human rights legislation and respect the provisions for freedom of expression in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). This can be done by powers like the United States, who can leverage their position as significant arms-suppliers to the UAE.  

International organizations also need to take measures to encourage the UAE’s compliance with international covenants. UN voting members must reconsider electing nations like Saudi Arabia and the UAE into positions on the UN Human Rights Council if the states are not compliant with the UDHR. Cumulatively, these actions may be enough to curtail the human rights abuses present within the UAE.