Privacy laws regulate how a government, public or private organizations, and individuals can use and store confidential information. All democratic states guarantee the freedom of opinion and communication in the Constitution, but legislation concerning privacy varies. Private information usually includes personally identifiable data such as full name, telephone, address, financial or medical history, etc. Privacy also concerns verbal, written, or visual depiction of the individual’s private life. Some countries are more lenient in the restrictions adhering to their constitutional guarantees. In contrast, others have strict limitations on producing and using specified data, harshly penalizing any offense. The UAE is one of the latter, having numerous legal restrictions and regulations that seem nearly contradictory to the UAE’s constitutional rights. The UAE privacy laws are constraining and harsh, and they have both beneficial and detrimental impacts on the conduct of media and individuals.
The UAE Constitution does not have articles explicitly connected to confidentiality, except for Article 36. The right to privacy states that “homes shall be inviolable” and “they may not be entered without permission from their inhabitants except in accordance with the provisions of the law” (UAE, 2004, p. 8). This article guarantees the fundamental human right to private space but states that the law has a final standing on exceptions that allow for violation of the Constitution. The same goes for freedom of expression, opinion, thought, conscience, and communication presented in Articles 30 and 31. The document often states that something is guaranteed “within the limits of the law” or “in accordance with the law” (UAE, 2004, p. 8). Such wording is logical in most cases, but the absence of concrete limits of what law can manage allows for adopting strict or unethical legislation.
The primary two documents comprising the UAE privacy laws are the Penal Code and the Cybercrime Law. In Chapter 6 of the Penal Code, Articles 378 through 380 prohibit individuals from such unauthorized or non-consensual activities as:
- lending an ear, recording or transmitting private conversations;
- capturing or transmitting pictures of others by any means;
- divulging a secret entrusted to them because of the individual’s profession or position;
- opening others’ letters or cables or listening to their telephone conversation (ADJD, 2011).
The penalties for said crimes vary from a fine to an arrest and a full-fledged prison sentence in the worst-case scenario. Additionally, the Cybercrime Law No. 5 of 2012 was issued to manage privacy concerns and restrict the flow of information on the Internet. While prohibiting all of the conduct mentioned above on the web, it also forbids defamatory statements, offensive emojis, immoral or malicious content, and hacking (All you need to know about UAE privacy laws, 2017). In contrast to the Penal Code, which is strict but tries to protect people’s privacy, parts of the Cybercrime Law violate democratic considerations on the freedom of speech and the press.
The other significant issue is that the penalties applied to offenders are abysmally harsh. For example, the UAE Federal Law prohibits gathering at traffic accident sites and taking pictures or videos of injured without their consent (Ahmed, 2022). In non-accident circumstances, the penalty would be under Articles 378-380, but the authorities perceive posting or publishing non-consensual pictures of the injured as a more severe violation. Ministerial Resolution No. 178 of 2017 states that Article 197/2 of the Penal Code defines the penalty for such violations (Ahmed, 2022). Said article envisages imprisonment and fine for diffusing information or news or instigating acts “that lead to exposing the State security to danger or are incompatible with public policy” (ADJD, 2011, p. 106). Consequently, onlookers are assimilated into saboteurs and judged accordingly, which, personally, is quite extreme.
The UAE privacy laws call for cautious behavior from the press, citizens, and tourists in their daily activities in real-life and digital mediums. The restrictions most commonly affect photography, videotaping, publishing, and posting, as it is easy to accidentally violate the law, especially for foreigners, children, and teenagers. Furthermore, the press cannot freely report news of the day and occurring incidents as reporters need to get prior consent from everyone concerned, making the coverage in a crowded place virtually impossible. Protecting people’s privacy is as essential as ensuring constitutional rights. In the UAE’s case, the authorities make it increasingly difficult for people to differentiate between freedoms and violations, revising existing regulations and adding new ones like the Cybercrime Law. The responsibilities of institutions like the Telecommunications and Digital Government Regulatory Authority and the power granted to licensed service providers are akin to that of the secret police. They monitor the Internet, block online content, and shut down unlawful sites (All you need to know about UAE privacy laws, 2017). As a result, organizations and people are seriously curtailed in their expression of will, artistry, and communication.
However, the rationale behind the UAE privacy laws is sound. In addition, one cannot deny the existence of a beneficial impact of the policy on the conduct of media and individuals. The authorities foster a non-intrusive, polite, and moral environment that serves national interests, adheres to the state’s culture and values and preserves social cohesion and public order. In the example of road collisions above, the authorities argue that “gathering around accidents makes it difficult for security and medical authorities … to reach the site on time” (Ahmed, 2022, para. 3). Instead of doing that, the law encourages bystanders to provide “assistance and cooperate with the police in a positive way” (Ahmed, 2022, para. 6). Similarly, the Cybercrime Law demands the UAE residents and media to be tolerant and respectful and communicate with or about others without hatred or contempt. The content posted by people should not be un-Islamic or blasphemous, encourage sinful behavior, corrupt minors, or propagate lewdness (All you need to know about UAE privacy laws, 2017). In Western Asia, such privacy laws are entirely adequate and reflect the region’s traditions and beliefs.
In sum, the UAE has strict laws and regulations regarding privacy and public conduct. While the Constitution states freedom of expression and communication, it also notes that the law has the final saying. As such, the authorities can revise and add legislations that shapes said freedoms. The Penal Code and the Cybercrime Law are the main sources of privacy laws. They prohibit unauthorized or non-consensual verbal, written, or visual recording or transmitting of individuals and their conversations, as well as other conduct that is deemed defamatory, offensive, immoral, or malicious. As a result of such restrictions and severe penalties, the UAE privacy laws can be viewed as incompatible with fundamental human rights and freedoms. Still, the policy enables favorable relations between people and reflects the region’s identity.
Abu Dhabi Judicial Department (ADJD). (2011). Penal Code. Author.
Ahmed, A. A. (2022). UAE: Bystanders fined Dh1,000 for crowding around accident sites, taking photos and videos. Khaleej Times. Web.
All you need to know about UAE privacy laws. (2017). Khaleej Times. Web.
United Arab Emirates (UAE). (2004). United Arab Emirates’s Constitution of 1971 with Amendments through 2004. Oxford University Press.