The week continues to churn out important news, including here in the Middle East. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced a change in its laws this Saturday. The legal reforms were aimed to ‘consolidate UAE’s principles of tolerance’, as it continues to modernize itself. The reforms include allowing unmarried couples to live together, loosening alcohol restrictions on adults aged 21 and over, and criminalizing ‘honor killings’. 

Changes in laws around alcohol

Alcohol consumption, for example, is no longer a criminal offence. Earlier, it was possible to be prosecuted for having alcohol in the home, or consuming alcohol without a license, particularly if they were arrested for another offence. Now, this will no longer happen. It’s a good move, as earlier Muslim residents were unable to get the license at all, and non-Muslim residents had to pay a yearly fee for this license. Changing the laws makes the country more tolerable and more accepting of people’s lifestyles, regardless of their religion.

Changes in the UAE’s Penal Code

There have been changes in the Penal Code as well. In an attempt to protect women, laws that defend ‘honor crimes’ are being removed. Punishment that is meted out to punish a woman’s shame will now be treated as any other type of assault. This custom has been widely criticized as tribal and barbaric, and is a welcome change to the country’s penal code. An amendment was also made allowing unmarried couples to live together. Though it wasn’t normally enforced, the threat of punishment for couples living together was still a possibility. Now, that threat is removed, and allows couples to live together without any fear. 

The UAE has also announced updates to its divorce and inheritance laws.

The changes also mean that Islamic law will rarely be used when it comes to family-law cases for non-citizens in the country. This is significant because the population of citizens in the UAE is less than 20 per cent. The country has one of the highest immigrant populations in the world, necessitating the use of non-Islamic, secular laws. 

Divorce Laws

In terms of divorce laws, the UAE will now offer expats a path to divorce that isn’t dictated by Sharia law. This means that a couple from any religion that files for a divorce will have proceedings dictated by the laws of the country where they got married. Earlier, Muslim couples came under Sharia laws in terms of division of assets, payment support, and child custody. Non-Muslim expatriates could either opt for Sharia law, or request the laws of their home country. If the couples were of different nationalities, the husband’s country of citizenship would be applicable. It’s a positive step, as it helps couples avoid lengthy procedures to finalize a divorce. It also negates the need for petitions or conflict over whose laws should apply to each divorce.


Inheritance Laws

Inheritance laws, too, have changed, keeping multiple nationalities in mind. Earlier, Muslim residents (citizens or expats) would have to follow Sharia law, while a non-Muslim expat would have to petition the court for the country’s laws to be applied to their will. Otherwise, Sharia law would automatically be applied.

Inheritance under Sharia law is complicated, and biased towards men. Under Islam, a larger share is typically allocated to male heirs, as the expectation is that men would support women. A standard rule is that a daughter would receive half the assets her brother would from the father, for example.

Now, a person’s citizenship will determine how their assets are divided, irrespective of religion.

If a will is drafted, then the will is followed. If not, then the laws that are from the expat’s country of citizenship will apply. There is one exception – for property bought in the UAE. If there is no will, then Sharia laws apply here.



It’s useful to know that the laws are being updated, keeping the country’s population in mind. Law firms have seen an increase in inquiries about wills since the COVID-19 outbreak, and it is a sobering but positive step towards accepting expatriates and welcoming other cultures to the country. The nation is preparing for an influx of guests for Expo 2020. With new reforms, the UAE becomes safer, more accessible, and more viable for people to visit and move to. Having grown up here, it’s great to see the country choose to become more tolerant, more welcoming, and more accessible. Of course, there is still a long way to go, but these steps are crucial in making the region more accessible.

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Natalia Ahmed

By Natalia Ahmed

Editorial Fellow