Fearing repression in Dubai, non-binary people stay away from Cop28

Non-binary and trans people have been detained and deported at Dubai airport and being gay is effectively criminalised in the UAE

Fearing repression, non-binary people stay away from Cop28. A police officer in Abu Dhabi poses with his police car

A police officer in Abu Dhabi poses with his police car (Photo credit: Felix Berndt)


People who define themselves as neither male nor female are staying away from this year’s UN climate summit in Dubai, giving up an opportunity to advance their causes and their careers. 

Non-binary campaigners told Climate Home News they would not attend Cop28, which starts on 30 November, or were wavering due to the host country’s record.

Non-binary foreigners have been detained at the UAE’s borders and deported and non-binary Emiratis have reported difficulties expressing their gender in public 

Rani is a non-binary Pakistani who works for an umbrella group of NGOs on climate issues. They are grappling with whether to attend the talks or not.  

Rani read reports from 2022 that Thai trans model Rachaya Noppakaroon was detained at Dubai airport because her passport had a male gender marker. She endured a nine-hour interrogation at the airport before being sent back to Thailand. 

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Rani fears something similar will happen to them as their  passport identifies them as non-binary.

That’s an option in her native Pakistan as well as several other South Asian nations and developed countries like the USA and Australia.

In January, Pakistani newspaper Dawn reported that two Pakistanis with this identification stopped over for a layover at Dubai airport but were denied boarding for their onward flight just 15 minutes before takeoff.

One of them, Zehrish, told Climate Home at the time that the state-owned airline FlyDubai cited the UAE’s immigration policy when refusing them boarding.

‘I am numb’

The UAE has no explicit policy addressing the entry restrictions for gender non-conforming individuals but Zehrish said that fact was no help to them in practice

Rani, who also missed out on Cop26 in the UK because of problems getting a visa unrelated to their gender identity, told Climate Home they were disappointed.

“I just don’t know how to feel anymore,” they said, “I am numb. No matter how hard I work in life, something will be there to prevent me from going further, from helping my community, from helping myself.”  

James is a young non-binary climate activist from the Pacific island of Tuvalu who has attended many summits but will stay away from this one.

“Climate negotiations are very important to me and my whole nation,” they said, “but I will not be going for this. I am uncertain about the risks that are involved and cannot justify these risks”..

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James said they had spoken to young people from the UAE about “intersectional aspects of activism and it is warming to know that many young UAE citizens are not like the government – though I am sure I am only interacting with a certain demographic online”.

Unwritten rules

Climate Home spoke to a non-binary person who has lived in the UAE their whole life. They empathise with the challenges faced by queer, non-binary visitors navigating unfamiliar laws just to exist in the UAE.

“We who grow up here know how to ‘fit in’—for lack of a better word… it is about knowing the nuances of how to be here, unfortunately,” they said.  

They added that the “unwritten rule” is that you can do whatever you want in private but you can’t be “too loud” in public. ” If you cannot do that or don’t know how to, it will be impossible to exist here,” they said.  

All sexual acts outside of marriage are illegal in the UAE and same-sex marriage is not allowed, effectively criminalising gay people. Breaking this law is punishable with at least one year in prison. 

The United Arab Emirates government and FlyDubai did not respond to requests for comment.

Read more on: Activism and campaigning | Asia | Cop28 | UN climate talks