When one thinks of Dubai, certain things come to mind. The world’s tallest building and seven-star hotel, the Burj Khalifa; the Burj al Arab; Dubai Mall, the world’s largest shopping mall; and multiple man-made islands. Superficially, Dubai looks like a city very focused on superlatives: tallest building, largest mall, highest rated hotel. It would seem that foreigners, and even those living there, lack knowledge about the culture of Dubai. In fact, the magazine of the UAE Ministry of Interior, 999, recently published the finding that 72% of expatriates in the UAE lack understanding of local customs and traditions. The lack of knowledge applies to the legal system as well.
Formed in 1971, the United Arab Emirates is a federation of seven emirates: Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm Al Quwain. The UAE federal constitution provides for the allocation of power to the federal government and the government of each emirate. Dubai is subject to the federal law of the UAE, but retains the right to administer its own internal affairs and judicial system.
Dubai’s judiciary system consists of a Court of First Instance, a Court of Appeal and a Court of Cassation. Each of these courts has separate circuits: the Civil Court, Commercial Court, Criminal Court, Labour Court, Real Estate Court and the Personal Status Court, which follows Sharia (Islamic law applying to marriage, divorce, succession, etc.). Even though the main legal principles in the UAE are based on Sharia, most legislation is comprised of a mix of Islamic and European civil law – similar to the Egyptian legal code established in the late 19th to 20th centuries.
As can be seen in the table above, respect for Islamic culture and traditions is paramount. All citizens of UAE are deemed Muslims, and Sharia legislation applies to everyone. Alcohol licenses must be obtained before an individual can purchase alcohol, but they are not given to Muslims, for whom purchase remains illegal. DUI charges are taken extremely seriously and can result in deportation. Public displays of affection are also forbidden; married or not, you run the risk of deportation for kissing someone in public. During Ramadan, eating, drinking, and/or smoking in public in the daytime is also forbidden and punishable by law.
Blasphemy is also illegal in the UAE and a blasphemy conviction can lead to an apostasy conviction, punishable by death. Conversion to other religions or supporting atheism is forbidden and the legal punishment for conversion from Islam is death. In practice, however, there have been no known prosecutions or legal punishments for apostasy in court.
Article 312 of the penal code states:
“Detention and a fine, or one of these two penalties shall be imposed upon any one who commits any of the following crimes:
- Abuse of any sacred or holy Islamic rites.
- Blaspheming any of the divine recognized religions.
- Condoning or encouraging sin, publicizing it, or acting in a manner that tempts others to commit such sins.
- Knowingly eating pork by Muslims.
If any of such crimes is committed publicly, the penalty shall be detention for at least one year, or a fine.”
Even though these laws may seem strict compared to most western laws, they are moderately liberal when considering the circumstances of the region and not usually enforced as strictly as in other countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. In contrast to neighbouring countries Saudi Arabia and Iran that follow very strict versions of Sharia, where blasphemy – insulting God, the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and Islam in general – is punishable by death, the UAE seems quite moderate. However it is still intolerant towards dissent, according to Gulf expert Christopher Davidson.
“The UAE’s relative sanctity has mostly been a function of its ability to keep ramping up wealth distributions to its fairly small number of citizens courtesy of Abu Dhabi – the largest emirate- and its massive oil revenues…. Massive salary increases have been announced for the public sector, which is by far the biggest employer of citizens, while welfare benefits have gone up more than 20%. Loan forgiveness packages have also been introduced for poorer nationals. So why is there the perceived need for such a crackdown on those who speak out? The answer lies in the UAE’s determination that no vibrant political debate should be allowed to interfere with its goal of providing a dissent-free investment environment. As such, almost any sign of opposition is clamped down on.”, writes Christopher Davidson for the BBC.
There is no universally accepted definition of terrorism. In 2010, the UN’s first special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, Martin Scheinin, called for terrorism to be defined as narrowly as possible, warning that “the adoption of overly broad definitions […] carries the potential for deliberate misuse of the term […] as well as unintended human rights abuses.” His proposed definition requires that the action cause or intend to cause death or serious bodily injury, and aim to compel certain responses by a government or international organization.
UAE law has no such prerequisites; it considers any act that courts deem to have antagonized the state, stirred panic or undermined national unity as terrorism. This, coupled with the lack of independence of the judiciary in the UAE, sets quite an alarming scene. In February 2014, the UN special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers described the UAE’s judicial system as being “under the de facto control of the executive branch of government.”
With regard to these issues, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Ruler of Dubai and the Prime Minister of the UAE has said, “We try to change it. We are not perfect and we try to change it. Any mistakes, we go in and try to change it. We’re not perfect, but we are doing our best.” This was when he was asked about an American prisoner jailed for making a video mocking youth culture – he agreed that the American had not been treated fairly.
The UAE is a relatively new country in an unpredictable and chaotic region. Even though one might not notice the UAE’s flaws at first sight, it has made mistakes and does not have an untarnished human rights track record. As Sheikh Mohammed has acknowledged, it isn’t perfect, but it is making an effort, which cannot be said for many other countries in the region.
As a resident of the UAE, I myself have learned a few things while conducting research for this article. The truth is that looks can be deceiving, and many expats living here do not try to find out more about the country in which they reside, which creates a dangerous environment. More effort should be made, both by the foreigners in UAE and its government, to raise awareness of these policies. It is a big transition for those who are used to more liberal lifestyles and legal systems, and laws that go against international human rights laws should be amended, but, in the end, expats do need to respect a country’s culture and traditions, whether there is a law saying so or not.