United Arab Emirates: Progressive Overhaul?

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) recently (November 7) announced what appears to be a significant overhaul of Islamic Personal Laws. President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan and the new package of reforms, all of which are effective immediately, are receiving considerable international praise.

The reforms cover significant legal ground, from introducing more legal flexibility surrounding private estates to removing restrictions on unmarried couples to cohabitate. The latter was previously considered a punishable crime throughout the UAE and was widely criticized by foreign residents. However, in recent years in Dubai, authorities routinely looked the other way for cohabitating foreigners. Another reform scraps penalties for alcohol consumption, sale, and possession for those of legal drinking age (21 years). Up until now, alcohol was available in some commercial areas, but all individuals needed a government-issued license to purchase, transport, or keep alcohol in their residence. This change permits Muslims barred from obtaining licences to legally consume alcohol in some instances.

In addition, suicide, forbidden under Islamic law, is now decriminalized. Previously, someone who attempted to take their life but was unsuccessful could have been prosecuted, though such instances were extremely infrequent. However, anyone found assisting an individual with an attempted suicide will still face an unspecified jail sentence.

However, by far the most praised set of reforms are those specifically impacting women. In a move to demonstrate their commitment to women’s rights, the UAE repealed a law that allowed judges to issue lenient sentences for “honour killings.” The term refers to the murder of women perceived to have brought dishonour upon themselves and their families. This widely criticized custom, until now, permitted male relatives to avoid severe legal punishment for assault in cases of alleged promiscuity as well as religious and cultural disobedience. This custom is not nearly as infrequent as you might think,  as Human Rights groups estimate that honour killings result in the murder of thousands of women globally every year. Saturday’s reform will treat these cases the same as any other kind of assault across the UAE. 

Some theorize that this broadening of personal freedoms reflects UAE’s desire to reinvent themselves as a Westernized tourist destination. Supporters of this view need not look very far. The reforms come on the heels of a US-brokered policy agreement aimed at improving relations between UAE and Israel, which is theorized to bring an influx of new Israeli tourism and investment to the country. This agreement is somewhat unprecedented, as there have been only two other Israel-Arab peace deals since Israel declared independence in 1948. 

The reforms also coincide with Dubai’s hosting of the World Expo. The event, currently delayed due to COVID-19, typically causes a flurry of tourism and commercial activity. Others believe that the changes reflect a “rapidly changing society” with more progressive values. Film Maker Abdallah Al Kaabi, known for his socially conscious films, appears to take this stance, telling CTV that he “…could not be happier for these new laws that are progressive and proactive.”

 While these reforms certainly are a significant and progressive step forward for the UAE, it is also important to consider what they are not. The reforms did not address any of the frequently expressed concerns by the LGBTQ+ community, and, as a result, acts of homosexuality and drag can still result in jail time. Also excluded are amendments to the definition of discrimination, which, as it stands, does not include discrimination on the basis of sex and gender. Furthermore, in terms of women’s rights, these reforms are far from a progressive overhaul that makes the UAE a safe haven for all females. Repealing laws that allow judges to be lenient in dishonour cases represents just one step, albeit a mighty one, towards a robust commitment to women’s rights. Legal protection from domestic abuse, for example, is lacking, especially considering that marital rape is not a crime. In fact, seeking justice for sexual violence in its entirety is extremely difficult. Human Rights Watch outlines that women face formidable, often insurmountable barriers. This difficulty is because reporting sexual violence while charges for illicit sex remain at play places an almost impossible burden of proof on survivors to demonstrate that the sexual activity in question was non-consensual.

A brief google search of the recent sexual assault charge against UAE Minister of Tolerance, Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak al Nahyan, does little to thwart this claim. The Foreign Ministry of the UAE responded to the charge by outlining that it does not comment on personal matters, and Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan maintains his position without any apparent investigation. This failing case, purely a random recent example, provides evidence of the human rights group’s claim and the issues facing women in the UAE.

These persistent issues are not only problematic and unjust but suggest that UAE has significantly more work to do to demonstrate their commitment to women’s rights. Thus, while the international community is right to praise these reforms, it is important to contextualize these changes and see them for what they are— a progressive step rather than an endpoint.

Brynne Thomas


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