United Arab Emirates

Last Updated 23 October 2020

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a federation of seven states formed in 1971. It is governed by a Supreme Council of Rulers made up of the seven emirs, who appoint the prime minister and the cabinet. Islam is the country’s official religion. The UAE is a member of the League of Arab States (LAS), as well as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). An estimated 88 percent of residents are noncitizens, largely consisting of migrant workers from India or the Philippines. More than 85 percent of UAE citizens are Sunni Muslims and an estimated 15 percent or fewer are Shia Muslims.1https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/UNITED-ARAB-EMIRATES-2018-INTERNATIONAL-RELIGIOUS-FREEDOM-REPORT.pdf

From March 2015 to February 2020, the UAE, along with Saudi Arabia, led an armed intervention against Houthi forces in Yemen. The armed conflict has created one of the world’s most devastating humanitarian crises, with 80% of the Yemeni population (more than 24 million people) now dependent on aid.2https://www.unicef.org/emergencies/yemen-crisis Thousands of Yemeni citizens have been killed in unlawful airstrikes, which have hit homes, markets, hospitals, schools, and mosques.3https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2019/country-chapters/yemen#c43786

Constitution and government Education and children’s rights Family, community, society, religious courts and tribunals Freedom of expression advocacy of humanist values
Grave Violations
Severe Discrimination

Constitution and government

The preamble to the Constitution establishes that the document is as an announcement “to Allah, the Supreme and Almighty, and to all the people”. Article 7 of the Constitution designates Islam as the official religion, and Shariah as the main source of legislation.4https://www.wipo.int/edocs/lexdocs/laws/en/ae/ae030en.pdf

The Constitution establishes that: “Freedom to exercise religious worship is guaranteed”, but not non-religious views, and only “in accordance with the generally-accepted traditions provided that such freedom is consistent with the public policy or does not violate the public morals” — broad qualifications.

Citizens have limited rights under the constitution to participate in elections.

Education and children’s rights

Islamic studies are mandatory in all public schools and for Muslim students in private schools. The government does not permit instruction in any religion other than Islam in public schools; however, religious groups may conduct religious instruction for their members at their dedicated religious facilities. Private schools found to be teaching subjects that offend Islam, defame any religion, or contravene the country’s morals and beliefs face potential penalties including closure.5https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/UNITED-ARAB-EMIRATES-2018-INTERNATIONAL-RELIGIOUS-FREEDOM-REPORT.pdf

Family, community and society

The government regulates activities and messaging of most Sunni mosques with the stated purpose of combating violent extremism, and requires all religious groups to adhere to general restrictions on freedom of assembly and association, including for religious purposes.

Presumption of Islam and death for Apostasy

All citizens of the UAE are deemed to be Muslims. Conversion to other religions (and by implication, advocacy of atheism) is forbidden and the legal punishment for conversion from Islam is death, although there have been no known prosecutions or legal punishments for apostasy in court.

“The United Arab Emirates criminalizes apostasy through the incorporation of the concept of hudud crimes under Islamic Sharia’a into its Penal Code.  Those crimes include adultery, apostasy, murder, theft, highway robbery that involves killing, and a false accusation of committing adultery.  Article 1 of the Penal Code provides that Islamic law applies to hudud crimes, the acceptance of blood money, and homicide. In addition, article 66 states that among the “original punishments” under the law are the punishments of hudud crimes, including by imposing the death penalty.  However, “there have been no known prosecutions or legal punishments for apostasy in court.”6loc.gov/law/help/apostasy/index.php#uae

Sharia for everyone

The judicial system applies two types of law, depending on the case. Courts apply Sharia (Islamic law) for most family law matters, e.g., marriage, divorce, and inheritance, and on rare occasions for criminal matters. Courts apply civil law, based on the French and Egyptian legal systems, for all other matters. Shia Muslims in Dubai may pursue Shia family law cases through a special Shia council rather than the regular judicial system. When Islamic law courts try non-Muslims for criminal offenses, crimes are generally not punishable by Islamic law penalties. In cases punishable by an Islamic law penalty, non-Muslims generally receive civil penalties at the discretion of the judge. Higher courts may overturn or modify Islamic law penalties imposed on non-Muslims.7refworld.org/docid/53d906f53.html

Under Islamic law, Muslim men may marry non-Muslim women who are “people of the book,” generally meaning those who are either Christian or Jewish. Muslim women are not permitted to marry non-Muslim men, however. Because Islam does not consider marriage between a non-Muslim man and a Muslim woman valid, both parties to such a union are subject to arrest, trial, and imprisonment on grounds such as fornication outside of marriage, which carries a minimum of one year in jail. The law grants custody of children of non-Muslim women who do not convert to Islam to the Muslim father in the event of a divorce. By law, a non-Muslim woman who fails to convert is also ineligible for naturalization as a citizen and cannot inherit her husband’s property unless named as a beneficiary in his will.

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Freedom of expression is severely restricted in the UAE. The country’s two main internet providers, both  majority-owned by the government, block websites that are critical of Islam as well as websites that post on topics related to religion, including some with information on atheism or testimonies from ex-Muslims.8https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/UNITED-ARAB-EMIRATES-2019-INTERNATIONAL-RELIGIOUS-FREEDOM-REPORT.pdf

The government routinely detains individuals who criticise the government or who speak out about human rights issues, often under the pretext of national security.9https://english.alaraby.co.uk/english/indepth/2019/7/16/cybercrime-in-the-uae-curtailing-freedom-of-expression The 2012 Cybercrime Law10http://ejustice.gov.ae/downloads/latest_laws/cybercrimes_5_2012_en.pdf gives the government the ability to monitor and arrest those who advocate for reform or criticize the government online, while the 2014 Terrorism Law11https://www.ilo.org/dyn/natlex/docs/ELECTRONIC/98658/117474/F399649256/LNME-FED-LAW-7-2014.pdf permits authorities to arrest and charge anyone who “antagonises the government,” even allowing them to retain prisoners after completing their sentence for an indeterminate amount of time.12http://icfuae.org.uk/sites/default/files/REPORT_Political%20Prisoners%20in%20the%20United%20Arab%20Emirates.pdf Local NGOs have documented the widespread use of torture against political prisoners held in the UAE criminal justice system.13https://www.ishr.ch/news/uae-united-arab-emirates-must-be-held-accountable-torture-and-ill-treatment-human-rights


Blasphemy is prohibited under Article 312 of the Penal Code, which states:

Detention and a fine, or one of these two penalties shall be imposed upon any one who commits any of the following crimes:

  1. Abuse of any sacred or holy Islamic rites.
  2. Blaspheming any of the divine recognized religions.
  3. Condoning or encouraging sin, publicizing it, or acting in a manner that tempts others to commit such sins.
  4. Muslims who knowingly eat pork.

If any of such crimes is committed publicly, the penalty shall be detention for at least one year, or a fine.14https://legaladviceme.com/legislation/117/uae-federal-law-3-of-1987-promulgating-penal-code

A law ‘combating discrimination and hatred’ passed in 2015 (Federal Decree Law No. 2 of 2015) further criminalises “offending, showing contempt or irreverence toward the Divine Entity”, “offending, insulting, challenging, defaming or disrespecting any religion or any of its rituals or sacred things” and “distorting, destroying, desecrating or insulting, in any way, any of the holy books.”15http://ejustice.gov.ae/downloads/latest_laws2015/FDL_2_2015_discrimination_hate_en.pdf Anyone convicted of these crimes could be imprisoned for over 5 years or fined. 

Prosecutions for blasphemy are fairly common. In 2020, three Sri Lankan workers were  fined 500,000 Dirham (136,121 USD) and were deported after being found guilty of offending religion in social media posts. In 2019, a man was fined the same amount for insulting God in a workplace.16https://www.gulftoday.ae/news/2019/09/16/man-fined-dhs500000-for-blasphemy

Freedom of Assembly

The law provides for a limited right to freedom of assembly. The law requires a government-issued permit for organized public gatherings. In 2014 the authorities dispersed impromptu gatherings or protests and, at times, arrested participants. The law provides limited freedom of association but has, again, imposed restrictions. Political organizations, political parties, and trade unions are illegal.17refworld.org/docid/53284a5310.html

Highlighted cases

In January 2012, Mahmoud Khaled, an Egyptian citizen residing and working as a Graphic Designer in Abu Dhabi, was arrested at his working place for defaming religion on his personal Facebook page (under the name Tony Marc). Mahmoud Khaled had there openly declared his atheism and posted comments and pictures critical of society, patriarchy and religious dogma. The prosecutor accused him of insulting religion and Mahmoud Khaled was jailed in the Wathba prison in the desert of Abu Dhabi. The court however aimed to check the mental health of Mahmoud Khaled and sent him a few months later to the psychiatric clinic of the prison, where he was attested with schizophrenia and medically treated, although Mahmoud Khaled was mentally healthy. Mahmoud Khaled, seeing the opportunity to escape a long prison term of maximum seven years, started to pretend being ill in the clinic and feeling better after medication. After one month of treatment and a few months back in prison, the court released him in June 2012 on insanity defense due to schizophrenia. Mahmoud Khaled was advised to undergo a mental health treatment and authorities kept his passport, keeping him unable to leave the country. Mahmoud Khaled returned to work. The following year, in February 2013, authorities called him in order to come to take his passport, but arrested him again once he arrived. He spent several weeks in the same prison again, before being deported, in hand and feet cuffs, to Egypt.

The case of Alia Abdel Nour is indicative of the shocking treatment that many prisoners of conscience receive in the UAE. Nour was a activist who was arrested on grounds of “funding terrorism” in 2015. She was forcibly disappeared for 6 months, during which time she was held in solitary confinement, tortured, and forced to confess, before being sentenced to ten years imprisonment in 2017. Despite her deteriorating health due to her cancer diagnosis, her family members were not permitted to see her for more than 20 minutes a day. In the final days of her terminal illness, authorities kept her hands and feet shackled to the hospital bed for extended periods of time. She died in May 2019.18https://www.echr.org.uk/en/prisoners-conscious-uae/alia-abdel-nour-0


“The believers around me never allowed themselves to think about their God’s negative points and  deficiencies… they quietly believe they are going to Paradise and the rest are infidels. This is widespread, among every group. The society where all blindly say we are believers of the only God, whom they fear, and make efforts to bless the younger generations by entrapping them in the same belief, is idiotic to me.

“Now I have released myself from the bonds of this belief, it seems to me like I was an object not human, the reason why I became an unbeliever was that if I knew there is a God, he doesn’t need what the clergymen are recommending us to do for him, the holy books and prophets coming one by one with new rules all supposedly from the same God yet with a distinctly human slant on them! We see most rules in a religious society do not have any relation to God.

“Yet I can’t express my view freely because it contradicts their faith and they will not permit damage to their beliefs, or to tell them that in my view their thoughts are false. I tried to express my free thought and I was abused, I was treated as inhuman, and some others said I was neurotic and stricken with mental disorder…

“The first time, I was with some other guys, we were talking about a religious matter, upon saying the name of Mohammad I was cursed, because I had said only “Mohammad”, they were saying to say “Mohammad” you must include “Peace Be Upon him”, and moreover you must send salute while saying his name, and for a long time they did not talk to me.

“Another time I was watching a clip of satire, in this clip a person was complaining from God about some unpleasant thing in this world, upon reaching this point all who were hearing the voice rushed to me and broke the laptop and even told me not to be seen here again. Most who knew me were disconnecting the relationship with me, calling me an Atheist, saying that Jew is better than you, you are not human, you will be in hell forever…

“After that I feel this world is only for religious people and every time I was humiliated because I was not accepting what you are telling, that was my sin. The issue is, if I keep soundless it really hurts me, and there remains all this wrong in world. It is everyone’s right to live a life free of any pious, ethnic and color prejudice. I want to see the world with love, passion, fraternity and affection only, and instead of fighting assist each other to have a future without any abomination and condemnation.”
— Anonymous

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