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COUNTRY PROFILE: UNITED ARAB EMIRATES (UAE) GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS
Overview: The UAE is a federation of seven self-governing emirates. The constitution, which was made permanent in 1996, specifies that all powers not specifically allocated to federal institutions remain the prerogative of the individual emirates. In November 2004, Sheikh Zayid ibn Sultan Al Nuhayyan, president of the UAE and ruler of Abu Dhabi since the UAE declared its independence from Britain in 1971, died. In a smooth transition of power, his son, Sheikh Khalifa ibn Zayid Al Nuhayyan, who had been the crown prince of Abu Dhabi for more than 30 years, was named his successor. Sheikh Khalifa’s half-brother, Sheikh Mohammed ibn Zayid Al Nuhayyan, succeeded him as crown prince of Abu Dhabi. The ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Maktum ibn Rashid Al Maktum, held the post of prime minister and vice president until his death on January 4, 2006. The following day, the UAE Supreme Council of Rulers named Sheikh Mohammed ibn Rashid Al Maktum, Sheikh Maktum’s brother and immediate successor as ruler of Dubai, to be UAE vice president and prime minister. In February 2006, a new Council of Ministers was formed, with various ministries reorganized, several new ministries created, and the second woman cabinet member named.
Abu Dhabi has been historically, and remains today, the politically predominant emirate because of its size, population, hydrocarbon wealth, portfolio of overseas assets (estimated at US$225–US$250 billion in 2005), and large budget exceeding that of the UAE government. The emirate of Dubai holds a secondary position by virtue of being the hub of private-sector activity. The UAE has neither democratically elected institutions nor political parties.
Constitution: In December 1971, the federation of six Trucial Coast states, later joined by the seventh, agreed on a provisional federal constitution, which was to expire after five years, at which point a formal constitution would be drafted. However, the provisional constitution was renewed periodically until May 1996, when legislation to make it permanent was endorsed by the legislature (Federal National Council), following approval by the Supreme Council of Rulers (rulers of the seven emirates). In addition to the Federal National Council and the Supreme Council of Rulers, the constitution provides authority for the president and vice president of the union, the cabinet (Council of Ministers), and the federal judiciary, and specifies the powers allocated to these institutions. Under the constitution, sharia, Islamic religious law, is a principal source for law. The permanent constitution also names Abu Dhabi as the capital of the state.
Branches of Government: The highest federal authority is the Supreme Council of Rulers, consisting of the rulers of the seven emirates. This body elects the president (who has always been the ruler of Abu Dhabi) and the vice president (who has always been the ruler of Dubai). The president appoints the prime minister and Council of Ministers. The Federal Supreme Council is vested with legislative as well as executive powers. It ratifies federal laws and decrees, plans general policy, and may relieve the prime minister of his post on the recommendation of the president.
The legislature is the Federal National Council. This body, which under the constitution has responsibility for examining and amending proposed federal legislation, functions only as a consultative assembly. It comprises 40 members appointed by the emirates for a two-year term. The most populous emirates, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, have the most members (eight each); Sharjah and Ras al Khaymah have six members each, and the remaining emirates have four members each. On December 1, 2005, President Khalifa announced that at a future unspecified date half the members of the Federal National Council would be elected by a council formed by the emirates; the remaining half would be appointed.
The federal judiciary encompasses all of the emirates except Dubai and Ras al Khaymah, which have their own local and appellate courts. The UAE has a dual system of sharia courts (administered by each emirate) for criminal and family law matters and secular courts for civil law matters. Sharia courts act in accordance with interpretations of Islamic law but are accountable to the secular Federal Supreme Court. In civil matters, the lowest courts are the courts of first instance, which hear all claims ranging from commercial matters to maritime disputes. Each emirate has a Federal Appeal Court. The highest court of appeal is the Court of Cassation, also known as the Federal Supreme Court; it is located in Abu Dhabi and consists of five judges appointed by the Supreme Council of Rulers. This court is empowered to adjudicate disputes between emirates or between the federal government and individual emirates, and to determine the constitutionality of local and federal laws. The emirates of Dubai and Ras al Khaymah do not refer cases to the Federal Supreme Court for judicial review but do maintain liaison with the Ministry of Justice.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary. However, because judicial decisions are subject to review by the executive branch and justices are predominantly expatriates who can be deported, the judiciary is not viewed as independent by the U.S. government. Noncitizen Arabs, who constitute approximately 50 percent of the federal judiciary, serve at the discretion of the government, whereas citizens generally hold permanent judicial positions. Women are barred from serving in the judiciary. The majority of public prosecutors are citizens.
Administrative Divisions: The UAE is a federation of seven emirates—Abu Dhabi (Abu Zaby), Ajman, Al Fujayrah, Dubai (Dubayy), Ras al Khaymah, Sharjah (Ash Shariqah), and Umm al Qaywayn.
Provincial and Local Government: Each of the seven emirates has its own government, which functions in tandem with the federal government. The largest and most populous emirate, Abu Dhabi, has its own central governing body, the Executive Council, chaired by the crown prince; the Eastern and Western Regions and the island of Das are headed by a ruler’s representative. Municipalities administer the main cities, each of which has a municipal council. The National Consultative Council functions like the Federal National Council. Local departments carry out various administrative functions. A similar system of municipalities and departments exists in the other emirates.
Judicial and Legal System: Under the UAE’s constitution, sharia, Islamic religious law, is a principal source for law. It generally applies to all criminal and family law matters, but in criminal cases the Penal Code may be applied if evidence required by sharia is found to be insufficient. There is no formal system of bail, and defendants have the right to legal counsel only after the police have completed their investigation. Defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty and have the right to a fair public trial but not necessarily a speedy trial. All trials are conducted before judges rather than juries; trials involving national security (which are heard only by the Federal Supreme Court) and public morality issues are not public. Each court has an appeals process. The military court system is independent of other courts and is used only to try military personnel.
Electoral System: The UAE does not have a system of popular elections; the Federal Supreme Council elects the country’s rulers.
Politics and Political Parties: Political parties are prohibited in the UAE.
Mass Media: The government-owned Emirates Media publishes Al Ittihad newspaper and owns Abu Dhabi’s radio and television stations. Another newspaper, Al Bayan, is also government owned, as are most television and radio stations. The country’s largest English- and Arabic-language newspapers, Al Khaleej and Gulf News, are privately owned. By law, the Ministry of Information licenses all publications and approves the appointment of editors. Laws also govern press content and proscribed subjects.
Limits on media freedom are being challenged by the establishment of Dubai Media City (DMC), a free zone intended to attract media and marketing services, business and information services, news media, and multimedia/Internet, as well as publishers, broadcasters, music companies, and production firms. In addition to tax benefits, companies locating there have been guaranteed that the government will not censor their news and information content, provided certain relatively liberal guidelines of taste and propriety are met. In 2005 more than 550 media companies were based at the DMC.
Foreign Relations: In 1981, mainly in response to the threat to regional security posed by the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88), the UAE joined with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman to form the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, now the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The GCC works to foster greater political, social, and economic integration among Gulf countries and increasingly has focused on improving member states’ defense capabilities. The UAE is a member of the United Nations (UN) and the Arab League and has established diplomatic relations with more than 60 countries, including the United States, Japan, China, and most West European countries.
Since 1970, when petroleum exploration began, tensions have existed between the UAE and Iran over the sovereignty of Abu Musa, an island situated between the two countries in the Strait of Hormuz. In 1992, after 20 years of joint control, Iran seized civilian installations on the island and later claimed sovereignty over this island, as well as Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb. Efforts by the GCC to resolve the dispute failed, and in 1996 Iran opened an airport on Abu Musa and established a power station on Greater Tunb. In December 1999, after numerous attempts to negotiate a settlement through a tripartite committee established by the GCC, the UAE renewed its request for Iran to either enter into direct negotiations or agree to international arbitration. The following year, the UAE stated that it would refer the issue to the GCC committee. In December 2005, GCC leaders reiterated their support for the UAE’s sovereignty claim and urged Iran to negotiate a peaceful settlement, possibly with the aid of the International Court of Justice.
In 1990 the UAE opposed Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait and provided foreign armed forces opposing the Iraqi invasion with military facilities in the emirates. In 1997, however, the UAE provided humanitarian aid to Iraq, and the following year it expressed opposition to the economic blockade against Iraq and announced that diplomatic ties would be restored. Although the UAE reopened its embassy in the Iraqi capital in April 2000, in that same year it lent support to a GCC declaration that urged Iraq to comply with UN resolutions. This endorsement may have been given to gain GCC support for the UAE in its territorial dispute with Iran. In March 2003, the UAE supported the Arab League resolution pursuant to which member states agreed not to participate in the United States-led campaign in Iraq, but once the conflict began, the UAE agreed to allow U.S. Air Force personnel and combat aircraft to be stationed at Al Dhafra Air Base in Abu Dhabi. The UAE subsequently provided additional humanitarian aid to Iraq and in January 2004 agreed to write off most of Iraq’s US$3.8 billion debt.
In response to the attacks of September 11, 2001, the UAE severed diplomatic relations with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and, together with other GCC members, pledged support for U.S. efforts to bring to justice the perpetrators of the attacks. The UAE did, however, state that it wanted U.S. efforts to be linked to a resumption of the Arab-Israeli peace process. In March 2002, after the defeat of the Taliban and the installation of an interim Afghan government in its place, the UAE reopened its embassy in Kabul. Although the UAE continues to be pro-Western, developments in the Gulf region, particularly the war in Iraq and the threat of U.S. action against Iran, remain a serious concern, and regional issues are the focus of the UAE’s foreign policy.
Membership in International Organizations: In 1981 the UAE was a founding member of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, known today as the Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC. The UAE is a member of the United Nations (UN) and many of its affiliates and specialized agencies—Food and Agriculture Organization, International Civil Aviation Organization, International Fund for Agricultural Development, International Labour Organization, International Maritime Organization, International Telecommunication Union, UN Conference on Trade and Development, UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UN Industrial Development Organization, Universal Postal Union, and World Health Organization. The UAE is also a member of the Arab Bank for Economic Development in Africa, Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development, Arab League, Group of 77, International Atomic Energy Agency, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, International Criminal Court (signatory), International Criminal Police Organization, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, International Finance Corporation, International Hydrographic Organization, International Monetary Fund, Multilateral Investment Guarantee Investment Agency, Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries, Organization of the Islamic Conference, Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, World Intellectual Property Organization, World Meteorological Organization, World Tourism Organization, and World Trade Organization.
Major International Treaties: The UAE is a signatory to various international agreements on aviation, sale of defense articles and services, security of military information, investment guaranties, mapping, postal matters, taxation, and trade in textiles. The UAE is a Non-Annex I country under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The UAE is not a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol, but has acceded to it, which has the same legal effect as ratification. The UAE is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention; it has signed but not ratified the Biological Weapons Convention. The UAE is also a party to environmental conventions on Desertification, Endangered Species, Hazardous Wastes, Marine Dumping, and Ozone Layer Protection.
Armed Forces Overview: In May 1976, the UAE’s main defense forces were merged, and in November the provisional constitution was amended to give the federal government the exclusive right to levy armed forces and acquire weapons. In 1997 the union was further strengthened when Dubai disbanded its armed forces and integrated them into the federal General Headquarters, which are based in Abu Dhabi. At present, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi is the head of the armed forces and as such has strong ties with the United States, which is the UAE’s main Western ally. The UAE is nearing the end of a 10-year, US$15 billion program to modernize its armed forces, upgrade its defense capabilities, and acquire modern technology. As a result of these efforts, the country is considered the most rapidly developing military power in the Gulf region. The UAE military consists of an army, navy, and air force. In 2004 total active troops were estimated at 50,500 personnel: army, 44,000; navy, 2,500; and air force, 4,000.
Foreign Military Relations: The United States remains central to the UAE’s defense policy. A defense pact with the United States, negotiated after the 1991 Gulf War and signed in 1996, allows the United States to preposition some troops and equipment in the UAE and affords it some rights to use air bases in the emirates. In 2004 the UAE and the United States signed a US$6.4 billion contract for the delivery of 80 F–16E/F Desert Falcon combat aircraft to the UAE air force by 2007. The first installment, delivered in April 2005, was marked by a high-profile official ceremony. Nearly 1,000 UAE personnel train at U.S. Army aviation centers in the United States. In 2003 the UAE, in conjunction with the United States, Britain, and France, established the Air Warfare Centre at Al Dhafra Air Base to serve as a regional training center, including F–16 training for the UAE and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. Despite the significance of the military relationship with the United States, the UAE has sought diversification in the procurement of weaponry. France remains a primary source of military matériel, as witness recent purchases of Mirage 2000–9 combat aircraft and Panhard light armored vehicles. Russia, Germany, and Ukraine are also actual or potential suppliers.
External Threats: The UAE is concerned by the military threat posed by Iran, given Iran’s unilateral seizure of disputed islands in the Strait of Hormuz, its possession of intermediate-range ballistic missiles, and its suspected development of a nuclear capability. The UAE is not considered to be as vulnerable as Saudi Arabia to the threat from al Qaeda and other militant Islamist groups, as these groups do not have a base of operations or support in the emirates. There are, however, security concerns because of the general volatility of the Gulf region, the repeated terrorist attacks in Iraq, the size and mobility of the UAE’s large, predominantly Muslim expatriate population, and the country’s pro-Western and liberal business environment. UAE officials, who meet regularly with their counterparts in the U.S. Departments of State and Defense, are concerned about the deteriorating situation in Iraq, as well as the threat of further U.S. military action in the region, particularly against Iran, and the impact such an action would have on the UAE’s unpopular pro-Western stance. In February 2005, at a major defense conference in Abu Dhabi, the UAE armed forces signed various agreements to purchase satellite surveillance systems and unmanned reconnaissance vehicles. Military experts view this shift away from more traditional military spending as an acknowledgment that the UAE’s primary threat is not conventional military attack but rather insurgency and terrorism.
Defense Budget: The defense budget has been level since 1995, at US$2.8 billion. Given several significant purchases of military equipment during this period, e.g., F–16 and Mirage 2000 combat aircraft, it is likely that additional procurement funds from external state investments are being made available to the military, thereby raising the actual level of defense spending well over the official budget number.
Major Military Units: The UAE military is divided into an army, navy, and air force (including a police air wing). The army, which is headquartered in Abu Dhabi, is organized into one Royal Guard brigade, two armored brigades, three mechanized infantry brigades, two infantry brigades, and one artillery brigade (three regiments). Dubai has two mechanized infantry brigades that are not integrated into union forces. The navy is based in Abu Dhabi, with additional facilities in Dubai, Ras al Khaymah, and Sharjah. The navy also includes a marine battalion. Principal air force units include three fighter ground-attack squadrons, one fighter squadron, and one combat-capable trainer squadron. The air defense force has two brigades (three battalions).
Major Military Equipment: The army’s main equipment consists of a combination of primarily French- and U.S.-made armored vehicles. The army is reported to be equipped with 469 main battle tanks, 76 light tanks, 113 reconnaissance vehicles, 430 armored infantry fighting vehicles, 860 armored personnel carriers, 93 towed artillery, 181 self-propelled artillery, 72 multiple rocket launchers, 155 mortars, 6 Scud B (up to 20 missiles) surface-to-surface missiles, 305 antitank guided weapons, 262 recoilless launchers, 62 air defense guns, and 40 surface-to-air missiles. The army’s armored capability has been enhanced as part of the UAE’s military modernization program.
The navy’s inventory includes two frigates, two corvettes, eight missile craft, six coastal patrol craft, five landing craft (tank), and two support and miscellaneous craft. Naval aviation has 11 helicopters and another seven helicopters in an antisurface warfare role. As part of its modernization program, the navy is seeking to upgrade blue-water capabilities with the construction of six multirole corvettes and to enhance amphibious capabilities through the acquisition of assault and landing craft as well as amphibious armored personnel carriers for the marine battalion.
The air force has 106 combat aircraft and 59 armed helicopters, as well as assorted reconnaissance, transport, and training aircraft; transport and search-and-rescue helicopters; and both air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles. Air force capabilities are being upgraded significantly through the acquisition of 80 F–16 combat aircraft and 33 multirole Mirage 2000–9 combat aircraft and the upgrading of the 30 Mirage combat aircraft already in the inventory.
Military Service: The UAE’s military is an all-volunteer, all-male force, of which an estimated 30 percent are expatriates.
Paramilitary Forces: The UAE’s paramilitary force consists of a Coast Guard (under the Ministry of Interior) and Frontier Corps. This force maintains 40 patrol craft (inshore) plus a number of boats.
Foreign Military Forces: At Al Dhafra Air Base near Abu Dhabi, the U.S. Air Force’s 380th Air Expeditionary Wing has operated aerial refueling tankers, the Global Hawk, and U2 spy planes since early 2002 in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Iraq. Al Dhafra is expected to become a permanent U.S. air base for regional operations. The U.S. Air Force currently maintains 1,300 personnel in the UAE.
Military Forces Abroad: In 1984 Gulf Cooperation Council members agreed on the creation of a two-brigade (10,000 troops) Peninsula Shield Force, based in Saudi Arabia. In December 2000, members signed a defense pact to increase forces to 22,000. The Peninsula Shield Force serves as a joint intervention force to defend the joint border of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq.
Police: Although the UAE’s Ministry of Interior oversees the Police General Directorates in each of the seven emirates, each emirate maintains its own police force and supervises its police stations. Police stations take complaints from the public, make arrests, and forward all cases to the public prosecutor, who in turn transfers these cases to the courts.
Internal Threat: UAE nationals are viewed as generally supportive of the structure of family rule that has defined the UAE’s government since independence was declared in 1971. The current president and ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Khalifa, faces no serious political challenges from within the ruling families of the emirates. Although there are some concerns regarding the politics of the large (80 percent), predominantly Muslim, expatriate population, the loyalty and effectiveness of the government’s security forces are considered to be sufficient to meet this potential threat.
Terrorism: In July 2004, the UAE enacted legislation that criminalized the funding of terrorist organizations. The law also increased the amount of time that public prosecutors can hold suspects in terrorism-related cases without charge from 21 days to six months. Terrorism cases are referred to the Federal Supreme Court, which may extend the detention period indefinitely.
In December 2004, the Dubai Ports Authority (DPA), which operates the main container ports of Mina Jabal Ali and Mina Rashid, became the first Middle Eastern port to participate in the U.S. Homeland Security Container Security Initiative (CSI) program, which is aimed at preventing materials that could be used by terror groups from entering the United States in shipping containers. Under the CSI, DPA employees will screen suspicious United States-bound containerized cargo transiting Dubai’s ports.
Dubai is strongly linked to the September 11, 2001, attack on the United States; more than half of the hijackers flew directly out of Dubai International Airport to the United States. In response to concerns that the UAE banking system had been used by the 9/11 hijackers to launder funds, in mid-2002 the UAE adopted legislation giving the Central Bank the power to freeze any suspected accounts for seven days without prior legal permission. In addition, banks have been advised to carefully monitor transactions passing through the UAE from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and are now subject to more stringent transaction and client reporting requirements. In 2004, however, a press report suggested that al Qaeda was continuing to use Dubai as a logistical hub for international travel, planning, and finance.
Human Rights: Although the UAE government has made some advances in the protection of human rights, the U.S. Department of State notes in its annual report on human rights practices that numerous fundamental practices and policies exist to the contrary. Specifically, the UAE does not have democratically elected institutions or political parties; free assembly and association are restricted; and the rights of workers are limited. Trafficking in women and girls, used as prostitutes and domestic servants, and in men, used as servants, laborers, and unskilled workers, continues despite government pledges to end these practices. In July 2005, a federal law was enacted criminalizing the use of persons under age 18 for camel racing; a 2002 decree banning the use of underage foreign camel jockeys was never enforced. All Dubai police departments, as well as police departments in other emirates, have human rights and social support offices that furnish assistance to female and child victims of abuse; however, the government is generally viewed as ineffective in protecting women from abuse.
The UAE constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press, but in practice these rights are limited. The government licenses all publications and approves the appointment of editors. Laws also govern press content. Negative comments about Islam, the government, ruling families, or UAE citizens (by expatriates) are punishable by imprisonment, although this regulation is rarely enforced, as the press practices self-censorship. The government reviews imported printed material for content and imposes distribution limitations on material considered pornographic, excessively violent, derogatory to Islam, or contrary to government foreign policy.
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