This comes as Dubai and its neighbouring six emirates make huge strides towards shifting their image into a more globalized and tourist-friendly country to attract more investors, professionals seeking employment opportunities and travellers from various parts of the world. This is particularly relevant and could not come at a better time as Dubai and the rest of the world are reeling in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic which saw lockdowns, travel bans and zero tourism.
These legal changes also came hot on the heels of the improvement in relations with Israel. The United Arab Emirates are one of three Gulf states to have recently extended a hand in friendship towards the Jewish country. They're hoping to attract a new type of visitor and investor to their shores.
Sharia Law became an issue for the friendly vision of Dubai
Historically, the UAE has always had an enormous population of foreigners living and working there tempted by better pay and a tax-free income. This immense diversity of people, religions and cultures all comprise the melting pot of over 200 nationalities that form the basis of the Emirati populace. And up to now these foreigners have had to abide by the strict Sharia laws that govern the Gulf countries.
There have been instances where residents have been arrested for displaying affection to the opposite sex in public, for outward shows of drunken behaviour or for their offensive social media posts. Another disturbing example was when a woman was jailed after reporting her rape.
These types of arrests have often not gelled well with the tourist-friendly vision of Dubai that its various industries, like the hospitality industry, was advertising to the rest of the world. Reports of the strict adherence to the Shariah laws and the consequences of breaking those laws may have discouraged many people from visiting or even investing their money in the Gulf countries.
The Emirates have therefore decided to implement sweeping legal changes in an attempt to overhaul its brand to the international community.
Changes to the Law to promote more tolerance
- Going forward, honour crimes will be treated seriously as assault or murder depending on the crime committed, rather than the lighter sentence that was previously given. These crimes will now be punished to the fullest extent of the law. An honour crime is usually perpetrated by a male in the family against a female relative who is seen as bringing dishonour to the family name. An example of this could be having "improper" relations with a man outside of marriage or eloping.
- Sexual harassment will be treated more seriously with hefty fines imposed, if found guilty. Tougher penalties will be introduced in cases of harassment of women. It is believed to cover stalking and street harassment, although this interpretation is not entirely clear. It is also now recognised that men can also be victims of harassment and stalking.
- Foreigners can now get divorced and follow the divorce laws of the country where the marriage took place rather than follow the strict Sharia laws. The marriage contract, including all personal and financial terms will be applied as per the laws of the country where the marriage took place. Formerly, non-Muslims got divorced adhering to the laws of the husband's home country and Muslims had to follow Sharia law regardless of their nationality. However, Emirati citizens are still subject to Sharia laws.
- Inheritance laws will also now follow the legal regulations of the deceased's nationality at the time of death. Previously Muslims, regardless of nationality, were covered by Sharia law unless they appealed to follow the inheritance laws of their home country. Under Sharia law, females are apportioned only fifty percent of whatever male heirs are allocated.
If the will includes real estate property in the UAE, local Emirati laws will apply.
- Prior to these amendments, activities such as cohabitation of unmarried couples, alcohol consumption and suicide attempts were deemed criminal and you had to obtain an alcohol license in order to consume alcohol in your home. This is still under the authority of each individual emirate and how rigorously they choose to enforce it. Punishment for buying for or selling to a person under the age of 21 will also be limited.
Amendments to the decency laws now make a first offence of public indecency punishable by a fine rather than prison in Dubai and consensual intercourse is now not illegal unless it involves a victim under the age of fourteen years.
However, there is no provision yet for homosexuality or cross-dressing.
- Legal discretion is now applied in cases where there is a suicide attempt. The courts can send the person to a treatment centre rather than to prison.
- Regarding the changes to the Civil Law, one partner is now allowed to sell the entire enterprise if they are unable to sell their share to another partner, but this is still subject to permission of the courts.
- Another important change is that arresting officers at a crime scene should have an interpreter present if the suspect or witness doesn't speak Arabic.
- Arresting officers are also not allowed to reveal any personal information of a victim unless under certain strict conditions, such as sexual crimes and crimes involving a minor.
- "Good Samaritans" with good intentions who try to assist or rescue someone but commits a harmful act towards that person will no longer be liable and be punished. An example of this is when a "good Samaritan" offers CPR or first aid but is held accountable when the person is injured or dies.
What is the virtual visa created by Dubai?
To encourage more foreign workers to move to Dubai after the global pandemic there is now also a virtual visa available. It was introduced in October 2020. Foreign professionals can now try Dubai "on for size" without leaving their employment in their home country.
Applicants will be issued a special visa that allows them to reside in Dubai whilst still working remotely in another country. If candidates meet certain minimum requirements (like show a minimum salary of US$5,000 per month, have health insurance, etc), they will be issued a "virtual working programme visa" which has a validity of one year and can be renewed.
It is a cost-effective way to live in Dubai, work remotely and still have access to schools, utilities, etc. The Dubai property market benefits by improving the rental occupancy rate and visa holders can enjoy the tax-free Emirati lifestyle.
Sharia laws are still governing other gulf countries
Presently all the other Gulf countries like Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, etc implement Sharia law in personal matters related to divorce, child custody and property for Muslims.
- Business matters are governed by each country's commercial laws. Any new issues that may arise are usually resolved aligned with international laws.
- The death penalty is still used for serious crimes like treason, drug trafficking, murder and rape.
- Foreigners are often deported or imprisoned, and even possibly sentenced to corporal punishment for crimes such as common law relationship (sexual relations between unmarried people), homosexuality, adultery, etc.
- Handholding and overt public affection should be avoided because there have been arrests made of unsuspecting tourists.
- Many of these countries expect their visitors to dress conservatively with some countries that specify that knees and shoulders should be covered.
- Male visitors should be aware that certain behaviours towards women (like unwanted touching) are construed as harassment that has severe penalties.
- Discussing or preaching other religions is also not encouraged and people have been deported for this in the past.
- During Ramadan it is very advisable to respect the customs and not be seen eating, drinking or even smoking between sunrise and sunset. There are specific places where you can eat during the day.
- You must be aware that taking photos of certain buildings/places and people (especially women) without their permission can result in a fine.
- Ensure you pay your bills on time because non-payment can result in fines or in extreme cases imprisonment until the bills are settled.
Whilst these new legal changes in Dubai are being lauded, there are some legal minds who believe that it has not been made entirely clear how these new regulations will be enforced since every one of the seven emirates can legally enforce these by-laws as they see fit.
Overall, all these new changes show Dubai's commitment to increasing tolerance and improving its brand as one of the world's leading destinations for tourism, employment and investment.
We can wait and watch to see if any of the other Gulf countries follow suit to revive their economies in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
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