The United Arab Emirates has this week enacted an anti-discrimination law that, in the words of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, ‘guarantees the freedom of individuals from religious intolerance … and underpins the UAE’s policy of inclusiveness.’
According to The National, Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, Minister of International Cooperation and Development, says the new law demonstrated the wisdom of the leaders in a country that was sending a message to spread peace and a culture of non-discrimination.
Sounds impressive, right?
That is unless you’re gay. Same-sex sexual activity remains illegal and punishable with prison in UAE, and the new anti-discrimination law says nothing whatsoever about sexual orientation.
Instead, the law will criminalize the following:
• Discrimination on the basis of religion, caste, creed, doctrine, race, color or ethnicity
• Hate speech or the promotion of discrimination or violence
• Insulting God, his prophets or apostles, holy books, houses of worship or graveyards
• Describing other religious groups or individuals as infidels or unbelievers.
• Abuse of religion or vandalism of religious rituals, holy sites or symbols.
Commentators think that some of the provisions – such as prohibiting the use of the word ‘infidel’ – are an attempt by authorities in the UAE to curb religious extremism at a time when terror groups are running rampant in other parts of the Middle East.
Those found guilty of the above crimes will face jail sentences of between six months and ten years, and fines of between Dh50,000 to Dh2 million.
The new law was applauded by UAE’s Minister of Labour, Saqr Ghobash, who called it ‘civilized’, according to The National’s Arabic language newspaper, Al Ittihad.
The law was also welcomed by Mohammed Al Kaabi, head of the Emirates Human Rights Association, who said it would punish those who incited hatred and preached destructive and intolerant ideas.
‘I think the existence of such laws is an urgent need for all countries, especially amid many messages of concern that incite racial hatred on social networking sites,’ he told The National.
Gay Star News has contacted Emirates Human Rights Association for further comment: specifically the zero protection the law offers LGBT people.
Others have expressed deep concern about how the new law may be used to stifle free speech.
Nicholas McGeehan, Gulf researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Gay Star News: ‘We haven’t seen the full text of the law but the omission of any reference to LGBT rights is as troubling as the omission of any reference to discrimination against women.
‘The prevailing rights climate suggests that the law could be used as yet another legal tool to crack down on free speech.
Writing on Pantheos, blogger Hemant Mehta said that ‘vocal atheists’ risked being criminalized.
‘I’ve never seen an anti-discrimination law double as a blasphemy law.’
Although UAE is regarded as more tolerant than countries such as Saudi Arabia or Qatar, and Dubai in particular attracts gay individuals from more conservative parts of the Middle East, being openly gay remains taboo; something that this new anti-discrimination law is unlikely to change in any way.
‘Where LGBT rights are concerned, my sense is that this is an issue the UAE would like to pretend does not exist for the simple reason that it’s an issue that will expose the conflict between the progressive image it wants to present to the world and the reality,’ said HRW’s McGeehan.
Dubai and Abu Dhabi are among the Middle East’s main business hubs. International firms including HSBC, Cisco, General Mills, American Express, Intel, Fedex, Marriott and Ernst & Young – all of whom have featured on benchmarking tools such as the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index and have their own robust anti-discrimination policies – have offices or branches there.
The UAE Embassy in London has not responded to a request for further comment.