On 20 July 2015, the UAE announced its adoption of a Federal Law, Law No 2 of 2015 on Preventing Discrimination and Hatred (the "Law").  Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, has announced that the law “guarantees the freedom of individuals from religious intolerance … and underpins the UAE’s policy of inclusiveness."

Although the main aim of the Law appears to be to combat religious contempt or intolerance (with a particular emphasis on preventing extremism), the Law also introduces a definition of discrimination.  Discrimination is prohibited under the Law both in the context of the incitement, facilitation or act of religious contempt or other intolerance, but also as a stand-alone punishment.  Whilst this latter provision is presumably aimed at combating extremism and terrorism, the drafting of the prohibition is quite wide.

The new legislation is a significant development within the UAE and was widely welcomed on its announcement.  In this bulletin we examine the main provisions of the new Law and its potential impact.

The Law creates a number of new criminal offences and states that freedom of expression shall not be a defence for actions breaching the Law.  The offences can be broadly categorised as those which relate to (a) religious contempt; (b) discrimination; (c) hatred; and (d) the incitement or facilitation of these acts.

Religious Contempt

Under the Law, it is an offence to show religious contempt, which means committing an act that may offend God, the three main religions (Islam, Christianity and Judaism), prophets, messengers, holy books or houses of worship (mosques, churches and temples).

Further offences set out in the Law include:

  • Offending, disparaging or shedding doubt about the Divine Entity;
  • Offending, disrespecting or otherwise ridiculing or disparaging any of the religions or any of their ceremonies or holy places or interruption of licensed religious ceremonies or festivals or preventing them by violence or threats;
  • Assault of any of the heavenly books by any means;
  • Offending, disrespecting or otherwise ridiculing or disparaging any of the prophets or the messengers or their wives, families or companions; and
  • The destruction or damage of any houses of worship, cemeteries and tombs or their annexes or any of their contents.

The penalties for breach of the offences described above range from fines of between AED250,000 (approx. $68,000) to AED2,000,000 (approx. $544,000) and minimum prison sentences of five or seven years depending on the offence.

Discrimination

Discrimination is defined as any distinction, limitation, exception or preference among individuals or communities on the basis of religion, Islamic Mathhab, belief, sect, faith, creed, race, colour or ethnic origin.  However, the Law expressly excludes from discrimination any advantage, preference or benefit conferred on women, children, the handicapped, elderly, or others, by any other UAE law.

Committing an act that creates any form of discrimination, by any means of expression is punishable by a minimum prison sentence of five years and fines of between AED500,000 (approx. $136,000) and AED1,000,000 (approx. $272,000).   An "expression" is defined as any saying, writing, drawing, signal, photography, singing, acting or mime and a "means" is defined as the internet, telecommunications network, websites, industrial materials, information technology devices, or any written, audio, or visual means.

Hatred

There are specific offences for arousing hatred speech (defined as any saying or act that may arouse sedition, dissent, or discrimination amongst individuals or communities), as well as using ways of expression or means to arouse tribal differences in order to encourage hatred amongst individuals or communities.

Similar penalties to those listed for discrimination apply.

Incitement and facilitation

Where a public employee commits any of the offences above, whilst they are performing their role (or due to their role), or where the person has a"religious capacity", or where the act is committed in a house of worship,  the penalties listed above increase.  The penalty is increased to up to AED2,000,000 (approx. $544,000) if the act adversely affects the public peace.

In addition to the above, there are offences relating to the production, circulation and possession of media of any form that are discriminatory or provoke contempt or hatred.  As would be expected, possession of such materials is a lesser offence and carries lesser penalties, although the minimum prison sentence is still one year and the minimum fine is AED50,000 (approx. $13,000).

Similarly, those creating or managing any organisation that engages in religious contempt, discrimination or hatred or encourages or tempts others to do so, will be imprisoned for a minimum of 10 years.  Anyone joining such groups will be imprisoned for a minimum of seven years.  Under Article 15, anyone holding or attending a conference or meeting with the same purpose will be imprisoned for at least five years and it is stated that any such meetings can be ended "by force, if necessary".  Article 18 also provides that the Courts have powers to dissolve any groups or organisations that are engaging in activities that are contrary to the Law and confiscate their assets.  Any expatriates convicted under the Law will be deported once they have served their sentence.

Wider implications of the Law

Although the Law is ostensibly a criminal law, it is expected to have wide reaching application.

In an employment context, managers will have to be alive to potential issues posed by employees with competing interests or ideas.  One person's beliefs could, depending on the manner and context in which they are expressed, cause offence and give rise to potential claims under the new Law.

Of most concern to an employer is likely to be Article 17 of the Law, which provides for joint liability for representatives, managers or agents of a corporate body if any of their employees commit an offence under the Law in the name and on behalf of the corporate body and any such manager or representative will be subjected to the same penalty as prescribed for the offence itself if they are proved to be aware of it.  Whilst this provision of the Law is presumably aimed primarily at organisations and other bodies set up to incite or facilitate the criminal acts listed above, nevertheless, we recommend that employers ensure that key policies, such as those relating to social media, are up to date.  Employees must understand that they cannot make unauthorised comments (of any nature, but in particular, those which may be considered offensive or breach this Law) that could be attributed to the organisation as a whole, particularly on company telecommunications systems or during work time.

Internal policies should make clear what is and what isn’t acceptable and employees should be informed of the consequences of breaching the rules.

Under Article 120 of the UAE UAE Federal Labour Law no. 8 of 1980, an employee can be dismissed without notice or any other end of service benefits if they are "finally sentenced by a competent court for an offence involving honour, honesty or public morals" and a conviction under the new Law would fall into that category.

Employers  should be mindful of the fact that under the Law, anyone who commits an offence under the Law will be discharged from the penalty if they report the crime before it is detected.  If they report the crime after it is detected they will only be discharged if their report leads to the arrest of other offenders.  Accordingly, employers will need to act quickly and inform the authorities if any suspected breach of the Law comes to light.

It was announced last week that the first lawsuit under the new law is likely to be against Dr Mohammed Al Hadif, for tweets criticising the UAE and inciting hatred.  How the new Law will be enforced, and how the case against Dr Mohammed Al Hadif will play out, remains to be seen but the new Law will undoubtedly play a significant role in preserving and contributing to the on-going stability of UAE society.