The UAE’s new cyber crimes law, said to be the most comprehensive in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region, provides a framework for Abu Dhabi to clamp down on two perceived online threats: cyber attacks on government institutions and the use of social media by political activists. The decree, announced by the official Emirates News Agency (WAM) on 11 November, enforces punishment for online actions ranging from identity theft and blackmail to deriding the government and inciting protests.

The action will be welcomed insofar as it brings greater clarity to a grey area in an important part of the country’s legal framework. Abu Dhabi police reportedly registered 235 cyber crimes in 2010 alone, but laws at the time did not provide the tools for effective prosecution in many cases. The new federal decree includes amendments to the previous 2006 decree to tighten loopholes on identity theft actions, such as stealing passwords, bank account details and other personal information. This element of the law will be welcomed by businesses in the UAE, especially in the wake of the cyber attacks on neighbouring national oil company Saudi Aramco in August.

Abu Dhabi’s crackdown on online crime is also timely as it follows the detention of more than 50 UAE nationals considered to be a threat to state security, many of whom were active bloggers. The new cyber crimes law stipulates imprisonment for online criticism of the state or its institutions and bans the organisation of unlicensed political demonstrations using social media websites such as Twitter and Facebook. These online platforms proved to be a powerful tool for pro-democracy protestors during the 2011 Arab spring revolts, and it appears the UAE has taken note.