The UAE’s Latest Legal Overhaul Reaffirms Its Open Values

President approves amendments to Personal Status, Civil Transactions, Penal Code, Criminal Procedural laws

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) on Saturday unveiled a raft of changes to personal and criminal laws, including decriminalization of alcohol consumption and divorce under the laws of country of origin, that will have implications for millions of expatriates.

UAE President, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, approved federal law decrees to amend personal status, civil transactions, penal code, and criminal procedural laws to enhance the legislative environment and “entrench the principles of tolerance in the society and strengthen the country’s position as a preferred hub that attracts people to reside and work”, state-run WAM news agency reported.

The changes were described by The National newspaper as “one of the biggest overhauls of the legal system in years” and the new laws “reflect progressive measures to improve living standards” and to ensure the UAE remains “a destination for foreign direct investment”.

Several of the changes will have significant implications for expatriates, as the laws of the country of origin will now apply in matters such as divorces instead of Shariah law.

“Based on the UAE’s solid commitment to protecting women’s rights, amendments to the penal code and criminal procedural law have repealed the article giving reduced (lenient) sentence in what is called ‘honour crimes’,” WAM reported.

In cases of divorce or separation of expatriates in the UAE, the laws of the country where the marriage took place will apply, and a court could mediate in the division of joint assets and joint accounts. Cases of wills or division of assets of a deceased expatriate who didn’t leave a will also will be handled under the laws of the country of nationality, instead of Shariah, as was the case in the past.

Suicide and attempted suicide were decriminalised under the changes. Anyone who survived an attempt to take their life could have been prosecuted under the earlier laws.

Alcohol consumption too was decriminalised and a person drinking or in possession of alcohol or selling alcohol in authorised areas without an alcohol licence won’t face penalties, according to media reports. However, a person must be 21 years old to drink legally and anyone found selling alcohol to an underage person will still be punished.

The changes also allow the “legal cohabitation of unmarried couples”. So far, it was illegal for an unmarried couple or unrelated persons to share a home in the UAE.

Consensual sex won’t be punished under the changes, but consensual sex involving a person under 14 years of age or a mentally challenged person will be punished. A person convicted of sexual intercourse with a minor or mentally challenged person by force will be given the death penalty.

A key change to the penal code was the abolition of an article that allowed reduced punishment for so-called “honour crimes”. Under the changes, such crimes will be treated as assault or murder.

Another important change that can benefit foreign residents is an amendment to the penal procedural law that states arresting officers must have an interpreter present if a suspect or witness doesn’t know Arabic. Courts must also ensure that legal translators are available for defendants and witnesses who don’t speak Arabic.

In another context, the amendments also allow the UAE Attorney General, in coordination with prosecutors in local authorities, to identify cases involving misdemeanours and infractions, where Penal Order can be applied, a step that aims at reducing the burden on the judiciary, especially in cases of minor cases.

Meanwhile, amendments to the Personal Status and the Civil Transactions laws allow non-citizens to choose the law that governs issues such as inheritance.

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