(Beirut, October 1, 2021) – United Arab Emirates authorities are using Expo 2020 Dubai to promote a public image of openness that is at odds with the government’s efforts to prevent scrutiny of its rampant systemic human rights violations, Human Rights Watch said today. Expo 2020 is a prominent global cultural event built on the free exchange of ideas.
Domestic critics are routinely arrested and, since at least 2015, UAE authorities have ignored or denied requests for access to the country by United Nations experts, human rights researchers, and critical academics and journalists. The government’s pervasive domestic surveillance has led to extensive self-censorship by UAE residents and UAE-based institutions; and stonewalling, censorship, and possible surveillance of the news media by the government.
“Dozens of UAE peaceful domestic critics have been arrested, railroaded in blatantly unfair trials, and condemned to many years in prison simply for trying to express their ideas on governance and human rights,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Expo 2020 is yet another opportunity for the UAE to falsely present itself on the world stage as open, tolerant, and rights-respecting while shutting down the space for politics, public discourse, and activism.”
Expo 2020 will be held from October 1, 2021, to March 31, 2022, with the theme, “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future.” The Bureau International des Expositions, the intergovernmental organization overseeing Dubai Expo 2020, said that the theme is “based on the belief that bringing the world together can catalyse an exchange of new perspectives.” The event was postponed to 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
This event, as with other expensive entertainment, cultural, sports, and educational events before it, is designed to promote a public relations image of the UAE as an open, progressive, and tolerant country while its abusive authorities forcefully bar all peaceful criticism and dissent, Human Rights Watch said. Earlier last month, the European Parliament urged states not to take part in the Expo, citing human rights abuses, the jailing of activists and the government’s use of spyware to target critics.
Since 2011 UAE authorities have carried out a sustained assault on freedom of expression and association, arresting and prosecuting hundreds of independent lawyers, judges, teachers, students, and activists, and shutting down key civil society associations and the offices of foreign organizations, effectively crushing any space for dissent. The UAE also introduced new laws and amended already repressive ones to further suppress freedom of expressionto more easily stamp out dissent.
Local news sites, many of which are owned or controlled by the state, exercise self-censorship in accordance with government regulations and unofficial red lines. Foreign journalists and academics say their organizations may exercise self-censorship for fear of denial of entry or deportation.
The government has also prevented UN experts, human rights researchers, and others from scrutinizing its human rights record on the ground. Since 2014, when the UN special rapporteur on the independence of judges visited the UAE and published a damning report criticizing the country’s lack of judicial independence, the government has rebuffed most requests by UN human rights experts to visit.
Major international human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have also faced increased restrictions on their ability to visit and engage with government officials on human rights issues. Staff of both organizations were refused access to prisons and high-profile trials, and eventually admission to the country. UAE authorities have rarely responded to either organization’s requests for information or meetings.
And since at least 2011, UAE authorities have also haphazardly barred entry to academics, writers, artists, and journalists, some for their criticism of the UAE’s mistreatment of migrant workers, and others often without any stated justification.
The UAE has embarked on a decades-long effort to whitewash its reputation on the international stage. These efforts were made explicit in the government’s 2017 Soft Power Strategy, which includes cultivating “cultural and media diplomacy” as a central pillar and has a stated objective “to establish [the UAE’s] reputation as a modern and tolerant country that welcomes all people from across the world.”
Expo 2020 is the latest in a long list of investments in ambitious cultural and educational projects that seek to further that goal, Human Rights watch said. Others include the acquisition of the Louvre, the Guggenheim, and New York University outposts, establishing Dubai as a luxury tourism destination, and hosting global cultural events such as the 2019 Special Olympics in Abu Dhabi and the upcoming World Expo in Dubai.
While leading international academic and cultural institutions first established a presence in the UAE with the promise to serve the public good by promoting “ideas, discourse, and critical thinking,” they have since remained silent in the face of increasing repression of basic rights. They operate in the UAE even at the expense of academic freedom and the right to free expression within their own spaces.
In 2001, to boost the UAE’s media foothold, the Dubai government established Dubai Media City (DMC) free zone, which has since become a regional hub for media organizations including news agencies such as Associated Press, and Reuters. The UAE has also since established other media free zones in other emirates. Organizations working within these zones, which include domestic and international press organizations, are, as of 2010 when the National Media Council issued a decree confirming it, subject to the UAE’s restrictive media laws. Even prior to 2010, when it was generally understood that the UAE’s media laws did not apply to the free zones, organizations working there were not free from abusive governmental interference.
Especially over the past few years, the UAE government has dramatically scaled up its surveillance capabilities, both online and through mass monitoring of physical spaces, prompting experts to list Abu Dhabi and Dubai among the world’s most closely surveilled cities.
Websites, blogs, chat rooms, and social media platforms are also heavily monitored and curtailed. The authorities block and censor content online that they perceive to be critical of the UAE’s rulers, its government, its policies, and any topic, whether social or political, that authorities may deem sensitive. Virtual private networks (VPNS) are criminalized. Citizens and residents face heavy fines and imprisonment for social media posts.
UAE authorities have also spied on international journalists, activists, and even world leaders using sophisticated Israeli and EU-produced spyware, or with the help of former US intelligence officials. Some of those whose communications and devices were targeted by the government surveillance and who are residents of the UAE, were subsequently arrested and abused in detention.
Among them is the prominent Emirati human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor. A UAE court sentenced Mansoor to 10 years in prison in May 2018 following a grossly unfair trial, partly based on private email exchanges and WhatsApp conversations. A 2016 Citizen Lab report demonstrated five other cases where arrests or convictions of users followed malware attacks against their Twitter accounts from 2012 to 2015.
This repressive environment, coupled with the authorities’ use of advanced spyware to target anyone deemed a threat to the country, has led citizens, residents, and even journalists, academics, businessmen, and others who frequent the UAE to warily restrict their public criticism of the authorities. As one journalist said about their office based in Dubai, “The head of office is shit scared of the authorities … There is a practice of holding back stories if they can’t get official comment – which they often can’t. They don’t go hard on the UAE.”
Governments and businesses have a human rights responsibility to avoid contributing to UAE authorities’ efforts to whitewash its abuses. As countries prepare to showcase their pavilions at the Dubai EXPO, they should help prevent the UAE’s whitewashing attempts by either advocating for the UAE to unconditionally release all those unjustly detained for exercising their right to free expression and to regularly open up the country, including its jails and its courts, to scrutiny by independent researchers and monitors, or not participate in the EXPO, Human Rights Watch said.
“With widespread arrests, intimidation, surveillance, and retaliation that citizens and residents face for speaking out, Expo participants and other countries should raise concerns about rights abuses in the UAE,” Page said. “Countries participating in the expo should ensure that they are not helping the UAE whitewash its image and obscure its abuses.”
Government Stonewalling and Limits to Criticism
Rampant surveillance and the risk of arrest, detention, and prosecution for expressing what the government may deem to be criticism of the UAE, its leaders, and its policies has led government officials, UAE citizens, foreign residents, academics, artists, and even international journalists to say they restrict what they think they can say about the UAE.
Despite establishing itself as a media hub in the region almost two decades ago, the UAE has steadily continued to further restrict the space for media to exercise the right to free speech. In January, the UAE cabinet approved the general framework of the UAE Media Strategy, which aims to, among other things, “manage the country’s reputation,” and which provides an overview of what content both traditional and digital media, including in the free zones, as well as social media users and social media influencers, are prohibited from publishing. Some journalists – professionals whose trade depends on the right to freedom of expression and whose offices operate in the free zones – say they are under continuing pressure to self-censor.
Human Rights Watch spoke to five journalists who work for four major international news organizations with offices in Dubai. Journalists at three of the four news organizations alleged that their offices limited coverage of stories critical of the UAE.
“A lot of red lines at [News Outlet Name Withheld] are self-imposed,” said one journalist. “Editors say “our office is there” as an excuse for backing off.”
All five journalists mentioned not always knowing what the government’s “red lines” were. “It’s obviously highly restrictive [in the UAE], that’s just a fact of life,” one journalist said. “Where it becomes a bit more difficult, is you’re not sure where the red lines are.” The journalist said that certain stories “you don’t even anticipate to be problematic” are deemed so by authorities.
“The situation is very muddy, you have to guess what is allowed or not,” said another.
The journalists Human Rights Watch spoke to mentioned several events or stories that took place over the past few years that, in their view, their news offices did not cover adequately because of the repressive environment they operated in. Among those cited were news regarding the well-being and circumstances of Sheikha Latifa, the Dubai ruler’s daughter who had unsuccessfully attempted to flee the country in May 2018.
“Major outlets were covering it as a top story and we just gave it [minimal coverage] and that was it,” said one journalist. “Given we are in the UAE we should have been able to lead on this story, but we didn’t.”
Another journalist said that the Sheikha Latifa story was “completely off limits.” “Most international media don’t attempt to do that kind of reporting from Dubai. [Instead, they do it] from other datelines and so on.”
Another topic journalists said that their publications limited coverage on was the UAE’s normalization deal with Israel and the opening of the Israeli embassy in Abu Dhabi. “My government sources told me not to touch the Israel deal,” said one journalist.
All five journalists described instances in which they or their colleagues faced pushback from the authorities for coverage of certain topics that the authorities deemed critical, including being “stonewalled” by authorities or by receiving mildly threatening or warning phone calls from government representatives.
Journalists also described how they or their colleagues were temporarily denied entry back into the country, or were subjected to temporary travel bans while inside the country. One journalist said that after smaller publications in the UAE had covered articles they had written, the authorities had occasionally summoned journalists at the smaller publications for investigation.
The Associated Press reported this week that Expo press staff repeatedly tried to force visiting journalists to sign forms that imply they could face criminal prosecution for not following their instructions on site.
Some journalists said they believed they were being monitored and that they operated under the assumption that surveillance was taking place. “When I do in-person interviews I leave all phones at home; I only message people on a foreign phone using encrypted apps,” said one journalist.
Being based in the UAE did not necessarily mean those news offices had more access to government sources and information. Four journalists said the government rarely responded to their requests for information and that when they did, their responses were irrelevant to the context. “It’s tough to get official government comment – they often respond with written comments totally unrelated to the questions you ask,” one journalist said.
“Say there is a foreign policy angle to a story,” one journalist said. “In most countries you can call someone in the Foreign Ministry, a head of cabinet, or interlocuters to the foreign media. In the UAE, who do you speak to? It’s incredibly closed.”
Stranglehold on Free Expression
The human rights situation in the UAE significantly worsened in 2011, as authorities responded to popular uprisings in the Arab world by cracking down on peaceful dissent by arbitrarily detaining scores of activists and perceived critics of the ruling elite, disbanding the elected boards of civil society organizations, and preventing peaceful demonstrations.
In 2012, the UAE passed a federal decree on cybercrime that provides for prison sentences for a range of nonviolent political activities carried out on the internet, from criticism of the UAE’s rulers to calling for unlicensed demonstrations. In 2013, a court convicted 69 dissidents after a manifestly unfair trial widely known as the UAE94 case, in which evidence emerged of systematic torture by state security officials. And in 2014, the UAE issued a counterterrorism law that gives UAE authorities the authority to prosecute peaceful critics, political dissidents, and human rights activists as “terrorists.”
In March 2017 the UAE authorities arrested Ahmed Mansoor, who by then had started to refer to himself as the last human rights defender left standing in the UAE. Since then, security forces have held him in solitary confinement and denied him contact with the outside world. UN rights experts, human rights groups, the European Parliament, and US Congress members, have all decried his imprisonment and his detention conditions.
Calls for the UAE to allow independent monitors access to him in detention have mounted, most recently in July, after a private letter he wrote detailing his mistreatment in detention was leaked to regional media. The reports caused renewed concern over his well-being and possible retaliation, but the UAE authorities have denied or simply ignored every request for access to Mansoor. They have instead occasionally denied all allegations of his ill-treatment in prison, but provided no new information or detail about his condition.
The authorities block websites containing criticism of the government and other sensitive content. And they make arrests or impose other restrictions for speech related to or in support of Islamist political activities, calls for democratic reforms, criticism of or perceived insults against the government and government institutions, and even criticism of individuals.
Given the heavily censored and monitored internet space, and escalating arrests and prosecutions, citizens and residents are unable to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly about political and social issues. Even families of political prisoners who formerly used Twitter to speak on behalf of detainees, document allegations of torture, and call for their release, have gone quiet. In December 2019 Human Rights Watch reported that dissidents and their family members reported being targeted and under surveillance. They are repeatedly summoned and interrogated because of their opinions, intimidated, and asked to spy on their communities.
UN Experts’ Requests for Access Ignored
While UN human rights experts continue to request invitations from UAE authorities to conduct fact-finding missions in the UAE, not one expert has gained access to the country for that purpose since 2014.
These experts, known as “the special procedures” of the UN Human Rights Council, which include individual special rapporteurs and five-person working groups, have mandates to report and advise on human rights from a thematic or country-specific perspective, and one of their most important means of generating impact is through country visits. Such fact-finding missions allow special procedures to assess the human rights situation in a given country and submit specific recommendations for improving conditions.
The last time a special procedures visited the UAE was in January 2014. Following her visit, Gabriela Knaul, then-special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, issued a scathing report criticizing the lack of judicial independence in the UAE and contending that the executive branch exerts de facto control over the judiciary.
Since then, UAE authorities have failed to positively respond to at least nine UN special procedures’ requests for access, some made as far back as 2008. They are the special rapporteurs on freedom of expression, sale of children, slavery, environment, torture, human rights and counterterrorism, as well as the working groups on arbitrary detention, disappearances, and business and human rights. Since at least 2013, the office of the special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism has twice requested visits, following them up with five reminders, the latest in January 2021. The working group on disappearances sent four visit request reminders since 2015, and the special rapporteur on torture requested a visit in 2015 and sent reminders twice since, the latest also in January.
Since 2014, only two UN experts, the special rapporteurs on education and disability have received invitations, both in 2018, yet neither mission proceeded. The office of the special rapporteur on education had initially requested a visit in 2005 and only received an invitation in May 2018, and the special rapporteur on disabilities was invited in May 2018 but made a request to postpone the visit to August 2019. It is unclear whether the May 2018 invitation to the special rapporteur on education is still standing.
Nongovernmental Groups Denied Entry
Major international human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have also faced increased restrictions on their ability to conduct field research and engage with government officials on human rights issues. In March 2013, as the UAE’s infamous mass trial of 94 critics of the government was set to open, the UAE government denied entry to an Amnesty International trial observer and another international observer. Several other international observers did make it into the country but authorities prevented them from entering the court despite the government insisting that it was “open.”
UAE officials allowed Amnesty International staff members to enter the country months later, in November, but ignored their requests to meet with ministers and other government officials and to visit al-Razeen prison in Abu Dhabi, where many political prisoners were being held. Amnesty International representatives have not been permitted to enter the UAE since then.
In January 2014 UAE government officials forced Human Rights Watch to cancel a news conference in the UAE to release its annual World Report 2014. The authorities also denied entry to a Human Rights Watch staff member and placed two others on the country’s “black list” as they left the country in the immediate aftermath of the report’s release. The World Report mentioned the UAE’s continued crackdown on freedom of expression and association, as well the abuse and exploitation of migrant workers and violations of women’s rights.
Under UAE immigration law, anyone prohibited from entering the country “for being dangerous to public security” is placed on the blacklist. In May 2015, the UAE refused entry to an Amnesty International expert invited to a conference in the UAE to speak about corporations’ responsibility to ensure migrant construction workers’ rights in the Gulf.
While Human Rights Watch tries to engage UAE authorities ahead of major reports and often requests comment from relevant government officials about certain findings, the authorities have rarely granted meetings, and the few meetings that have occurred were outside the UAE. Most recently, in May, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to top UAE officials seeking permission for researchers to enter the country and meet with government officials to discuss human rights issues, and to be allowed private visits with Mansoor and other high-profile detainees. Human Rights Watch has not received a response.
Academics, Critics Blocked
Human Rights Watch reviewed media articles reporting that people have been denied entry since 2011, when the authorities began to deliberately and systemically close off space for dissent and free speech domestically. It found that UAE authorities have arbitrarily denied entry to several academics, writers, artists, and journalists, often without justification.
At the same time, the authorities worked towards establishing the UAE as a culture and education hub in the Middle East, in large part by spending billions of dollars to coax such internationally respected universities and cultural institutions such as the Sorbonne, New York University, the Louvre and the Guggenheim to open branches in the UAE.
In 2012, France24 reported that UAE authorities refused to issue an entry visa to a Syrian award-winning cartoonist invited to attend the Abu Dhabi Film Festival because of a cartoon commentary on dictatorships that he drew in 1983. In 2013, UAE officials denied entry to Dr. Kristian Ulrichsen, an academic and researcher with the London School of Economics at the time, deporting him to the United Kingdom. Dr. Ulrichsen was scheduled to discuss a report he wrote about Bahrain at a conference organized by the American University of Sharjah and the London School of Economics. The Foreign Affairs Ministry officially confirmed news that he was denied entry, claiming he had “consistently propagated views de-legitimizing the Bahraini monarchy.”
As investigations by Human Rights Watch and other international organizations and labor experts into the conditions of migrant construction workers on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat island revealed systematic human rights violations, some academics, journalists, and artists were targeted for their criticism of the labor situation in the UAE. The development hosts branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums and New York University.
In 2014 The National, a state-owned newspaper at the time, terminated the employment of a Ugandan journalist, Yasin Kakande, after he wrote a book describing labor conditions and media censorship in the UAE. UAE officials deported him to Uganda a month later, Reporters Without Borders reported.
In March 2015 the UAE denied entry to an NYU professor and labor expert, Andrew Ross, a staunch critic of migrant worker exploitation in the UAE. According to a 2020 Freedom House report, at least nine other faculty members from NYU have been denied entry to teach or conduct research at NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus. Students, staff, and support personnel have also been denied entry.
Freedom House said that the UAE authorities have also placed scholars and students who have criticized aspects of government policy on a unified Gulf Cooperation Council security blacklist, barring them from the wider region. Visas were denied without justification for two NYU faculty members, Mohammed Bazzi, a journalism professor, Arang Keshavarzian, whose specialty is Middle Eastern politics. Both believed it was in part because they are Shiite Muslims, an affiliation they were asked to disclose on their applications, the New York Times reported in 2017.
In December 2019 UAE authorities detained and subsequently deported a Serbian investigative journalist, Stevan Dojcinovic, at the Abu Dhabi International Airport after denying him entrance into the UAE, where he was scheduled to speak at a conference about the UN Convention Against Corruption.
Dojcinovic, who has reported on corruption and the Serbian government’s ties to the UAE, told Human Rights Watch at the time that the UAE authorities said he was placed on a travel “blacklist” by an undisclosed foreign government other than the UAE.
Some journalists and academics have been arrested and imprisoned. In August 2015 UAE authorities arrested Nasser bin Ghaith, a professor at Sorbonne Abu Dhabi, on spurious charges that violate his right to freedom of expression and association. A UAE court sentenced him to 10 years in prison in March 2017 following a grossly unfair trial. That same month, a UAE court sentenced a Jordanian journalist, Tayseer al Najjar, to three years in prison for Facebook posts criticizing Egypt, Israel, and Gulf countries while he lived in Jordan years before moving to the UAE.
And in May 2018, security forces arrested a British academic, Matthew Hedges, at Dubai International Airport as he was preparing to leave the country following a two-week research trip to the UAE. Authorities held Hedges, then a doctoral candidate at Durham University, in pretrial detention for more than five months. In November, a UAE court sentenced Hedges to life in prison for allegedly “spying” for the UK government. Five days later, following growing diplomatic pressure and international outrage, the UAE pardoned him.
The US State Department’s human rights reports on the UAE starting in 2012, until the latest report for 2020, provide a consistent overview of academic freedom and cultural events in the country, stating that the government has restricted speech by educators and students alike both inside and outside the classroom, censored academic materials, and required official permission for conferences. The report also described how cultural institutions avoided displaying artwork or programming that criticized the government or religion.
By choosing to operate in the UAE, where freedom of expression and civil and political rights are severely repressed, international cultural and educational institutions have bolstered UAE propaganda around tolerance and openness, and effectively helped obscure the UAE’s rampant abuses and blatant disregard for basic rights, Human Rights Watch said.
The UAE deploys some of the world’s most advanced surveillance technologies to pervasively monitor public spaces, internet activity, and even individuals’ phones and computers, in violation of their right to privacy, freedom of expression, association, and other rights. Using CCTV cameras, license plate detection, and facial recognition, UAE authorities aim to keep tabs on all residents. In 2018, Dubai Police announced an artificial intelligence surveillance program called Oyoon, which utilizes tens of thousands of cameras with facial recognition software and microphones that feed back into one central command center and can be used to track and analyze movements in key areas, and even issue verbal warnings to those suspected of wrongdoing.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the UAE and the ruler of Dubai, said in July that more than 300,000 cameras are monitoring Dubai round the clock. In May 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic was underway, the Abu Dhabi-based The National reported that the Dubai Police’s Oyoon programme had also been adapted to boost early detection rates for Covid-19, by equipping the thousands of CCTV cameras dotted around the city with thermal imaging technology.
And in July 2021, Sheikh Mohammed unveiled the Drone Box, a Dubai Police platform to dispatch drones across the city to “reduce response time to criminal and traffic reports,” which he said will officially begin during the upcoming Expo 2020. Abu Dhabi has a system equivalent to Oyoon called Falcon Eye.
UAE authorities heavily censor, control, and monitor online spaces, much like they do physical public spaces across the country. Major telecommunications companies are either fully or partially state-owned, allowing authorities to exert control over the flow of information. Authorities commonly block a number of websites containing criticism of the government and other sensitive content.
Most popular VoIP services, including WhatsApp’s voice feature and a similar one offered by Facebook, are restricted over mobile connections. The encrypted messaging app Signal is also blocked. Using banned VoIP services through a virtual private network is punishable under the cybercrime and telecommunications regulatory laws. Convictions under cybercrime laws can lead to a fine of between 500,000 (US$136,000) and 2 million dirhams (US$544,000), prison time, or both.
Authorities also use multiple tactics to gain remote access to people’s devices, an incredibly invasive practice that can expose a target’s private communications, network of contacts, photos, microphone, camera, and location.
In January 2019 a Reuters investigation revealed that a group of former US intelligence agents were part of Project Raven, an Emirati hacking program that enabled the UAE to spy on human rights activists, journalists, and political rivals. Project Raven utilized a powerful surveillance technology called Karma, which allowed Raven to obtain emails, location, text messages, and photographs from iPhones by exploiting a vulnerability. On September 15, 2021, three of the agents admitted to hacking computer networks in the US and violating US law as part of a deal to avoid prosecution.
In July 2021 an investigation into a massive data leak conducted by 16 media organizations and coordinated by Forbidden Stories identified potential clients of the surveillance technology company NSO Group in 11 countries, including the UAE. NSO has said it only sells the technology to government clients. NSO’s Pegasus spyware can be covertly installed on mobile phones and other devices running most versions of iOS and Android, and gives the attacker complete access to the device’s messages, emails, media, microphone, camera, calls, and contacts.
The investigation found that journalists, human rights activists, and even world leaders around the world were selected as possible candidates for surveillance by NSO group’s government clients. NSO Group has repeatedly denied the news reports, but none of the Pegasus Project partners have retracted their reporting.
In 2018 Citizen Lab reported that the UAE was one of the 36 clients that operated Pegasus. “It’s suggested I was under surveillance in the UK, before I travelled to the UAE when I was later arrested, tortured and sentenced to life imprisonment,” Hedges said on Twitter shortly following publication of the investigation. “Upon my return, my barrister was targeted by Pegasus. If we aren’t safe at home, where are we safe?” The Guardian reported that Hedge’s number first appears in the leaked data while he was in the UK, before embarking on his UAE trip.
In December 2019 the New York Times reported that an Emirati messaging app which was downloaded millions of times from the Apple and Google app stores by users throughout the Middle East, Europe, Asia, Africa, and North America, is actually a spying tool that gives UAE authorities access to the conversations, movements, photos, and other personal information of those who install it on their phones. Shortly after, the app was removed from both the Apple store and the Google Store, with Google Store quietly reinstating it a few days later. The app founders denied the news reports.