UAE legal overhaul could decriminalise alcohol, cohabitation to draw foreigners

The legal overhaul means that consuming alcohol, living together before marriage and attempting suicide will no longer be considered crimes. PHOTO: REUTERS

DUBAI (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - The United Arab Emirates plans to decriminalise "actions that don't harm others", potentially ending punishments for alcohol consumption or cohabitation by unwed couples in the expatriate-dominated country.

The amendments to the UAE personal status law, criminal code and other laws were made on Saturday (Nov 7), part of an effort to "strengthen the country's ability to attract foreign expertise and investment", state news agency WAM reported. It didn't specify when the amended laws will take effect.

The legal overhaul means that consuming alcohol, living together before marriage and attempting suicide will no longer be considered crimes, The National newspaper reported, without saying where it got the information.

While punishments for such actions haven't been commonly applied, some criminal cases involving drunkenness or sex out of wedlock had risen to prominence over the years, marring the Persian Gulf country's reputation as a magnet for skilled foreign workers.

Like other Gulf Arab nations, the oil-dependent UAE relies on expatriates to operate much of the economy.

The amendments mean that foreign couples who separate could apply the divorce laws of the country where they married, rather than those of the UAE, The National reported. The paper, based in the UAE capital of Abu Dhabi, said the legal changes are effective immediately.

WAM said that foreigners in the Islamic country will also be able to choose the inheritance laws that apply to them, instead of the UAE legislation based on syariah law (Islamic religious law).

Inheritance and divorce settlements are governed by syariah-inspired law in the UAE, and other Gulf Arab countries, though expatriates comprise the majority of the population, including in Dubai emirate, the country's financial and commercial centre.

Under syariah law, women's inheritance share is generally half that of men, and they could be excluded from inheriting land and property based on discriminatory cultural practice.

As part of the reforms, the UAE has also cancelled lenient penalties for so-called "honour killings", according to WAM.

Human rights groups say thousands of women and girls are killed across the Middle East and South Asia each year by family members angered at perceived damage to their "honour". This could include eloping, fraternising with men or any transgression of conservative values regarding women.

WAM said the federal government has cancelled legal clauses that allowed judges to issue merciful sentences in "honour crimes". The Emirati government said those crimes will now be treated by courts as normal murder cases.

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