Why UAE is easing laws on sex, marriage, liquor, CBD vapes and business : NPR


People have drinks at a restaurant overlooking the Marina District in Dubai, United Arab Emirates in 2019. The country loosens its alcohol laws and other restrictions.

Kamran Jebreili / AP


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Kamran Jebreili / AP


People have drinks at a restaurant overlooking the Marina District in Dubai, United Arab Emirates in 2019. The country loosens its alcohol laws and other restrictions.

Kamran Jebreili / AP

The UAE is known as a popular business destination that tends to punish those who break its conservative Muslim laws.

He jailed strangers for a kiss in public. Tourists have been sentenced to prison terms of several years for bringing products such as CBD oil made from cannabis extract into the country. Business people have been locked up for a bad check.

Now, experts say, the UAE wants to change its image. The emirate is in the process of revising laws that affect the way it regulates a wide range of business, cultural and social norms. On paper, this makes the emirate one of the most progressive countries in the region, although critics say the reality remains much more complex.

What this means for Emiratis and the foreigners who live there

Most of the new laws apply to both Emiratis and foreigners. They decriminalize consensual sexual relations before marriage and allow unmarried couples to live together; they legalize the consumption of alcohol without a license. The reforms also tighten the penalties for sexual harassment and rape and overturn the leniency of courts in dealing with so-called “honor killings”.

While recreational drug use is still a criminal offense, the laws have been relaxed, meaning people traveling the country are less likely to be jailed for bringing items like CBD.

The country now allows civil marriage – not just marriage under Islamic law – a practice that remains unavailable in many other countries in the Middle East. And foreigners can follow the laws of their home country on certain matters, such as inheritance and divorce.


Employees walk to work on the first working Friday in Dubai, January 7. The United Arab Emirates have changed their work week from Sunday, which is a working day in many Muslim countries, now part of the weekend.

Karim Sahib / AFP via Getty Images


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Karim Sahib / AFP via Getty Images


Employees walk to work on the first working Friday in Dubai, January 7. The United Arab Emirates have changed their work week to make Sunday, which is a working day in many Muslim countries, now part of the weekend.

Karim Sahib / AFP via Getty Images

And among new financial laws, foreigners can now own businesses without Emirati partners. There are also changes in labor laws, regulating working hours.

“You really have the impression of living in the heart of history in the making,” says Ludmila Yamalova, founder and managing partner of a Dubai-based law firm. “I have never seen such an extraordinary volume of progressive legislative amendments.”

Some of these changes were introduced at the end of 2020 as legislative changes. Yamalova says these are now part of a new penal code implemented this month.

Why is the UAE doing this now?

By some estimates, foreigners are almost 9 to 1 in the UAE. Yamalova says some of the reforms reflect the existing reality. For example, alcohol was already available in some places but heavily regulated. She says the changes are a recognition of the number of people who do not subscribe to the conservative beliefs of many Emiratis.

It is also widely seen as an attempt by the UAE to boost its international image, as it competes with Saudi Arabia to attract foreign investors and remain a leading international financial center for the region. Saudi Arabia last year warned multinational companies that they could lose lucrative government contracts if they do not locate in Riyadh.

The leaders announced the legislative overhaul to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the founding of the United Arab Emirates, which they have been celebrating since last year and through April.

The UAE has also moved to a Monday-Friday work week – instead of following the Sunday-Thursday schedule in Muslim customs – to better adapt to global markets.

Habib al Mulla, executive chairman of a Dubai law firm, who previously held positions in the UAE government and helped draft financial legislation, says becoming more socially liberal is a necessary part of being an international economic center.

“Everything is connected. I think you cannot have a liberal country from an economic point of view, but not from a social point of view. Or vice versa. It all reflects that they are like mirrors,” he said. “When you are more open in your professional environment, you will be more open in a social environment. “

What is the impact of these changes in practice?

Kristian Ulrichsen, UAE expert and analyst at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, says a key question is how the new laws will be applied consistently, especially in the more conservative of the seven emirates. of the United Arab Emirates. For certain social laws, he said, “we may not know for two or three years whether there has been any real change.”

There are already signs that one of the most publicized legal changes – the decriminalization of births out of wedlock – is not being implemented consistently. And Yamalova says the language of the new law relating to children born out of wedlock “certainly needs a lot more interpretation” than the original amendment announced in 2020.

New labor laws could in theory improve the rights of migrant workers who have worked for years in the UAE with minimal protections, often housed in appalling conditions. But much of that depends on how those laws are enforced – which experts say remains far from clear.

Critics point out that the new legislation also fails to address the country’s widely documented problems with state repression, prisoner abuse and trial violations.

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