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Commercial Question

New UAE discrimination laws: advice for employers

updated on 29 September 2015

Question

How is new UAE legislation addressing discrimination and hatred  likely to impact employers in the United Arab Emirates?

Answer

On 20 July 2015 the United Arab Emirates announced its adoption of a federal law to prevent discrimination and hatred. The passage of the law marks a significant development within the United Arab Emirates and was widely welcomed on its announcement.

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 (i) religious contempt; (ii) discrimination; (iii) hatred; and (iv) the incitement or facilitation of these acts.

Religious contempt

Under the law, it is an offence to: show religious contempt; offend or shed doubt about the divine entity; and offend, disrespect or ridicule any of the religions or any of their ceremonies or festivals, or prevent them by violence or threats. Further offences are included in the law.

The penalties for breach of the offences described above range from fines of between AED250,000 to AED2,000,000 (approximately £44,000 to £350,000) 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 certain groups (such as women) 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 and AED1,000,000 (approximately £88,000 to £176,000).

Hatred

There are specific offences for arousing hatred, as well as using ways of expression or means to arouse tribal differences in order to encourage hatred among individuals or communities.

Similar penalties to those listed for discrimination apply.

Incitement and facilitation

Where a public employee commits any of the offences above while 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 (£352,000) 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. Possession of such materials is a lesser offence and carries lesser penalties.

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. Penalties also apply to anyone joining such groups or holding or attending conferences or meetings with the same purpose.

Article 18 grants the courts power to dissolve any groups or organisations which are breaching the law and confiscate their assets.

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, Article 17 of the law is likely to be of most concern. Article 17 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. While 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, 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 that could be attributed to the organisation as a whole.

Under Article 120 of the UAE Federal Labour Law Number 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.

Antoinette Oliver is a trainee solicitor at Clyde & Co.