UAE Announces Changes In Islamic Law To Broaden Personal Freedoms


On Saturday, November 7th, the United Arab Emirates, a federation of seven Emirates, announced the overhaul of Islamic laws in the effort to modernize society to attract tourists and boost the economy. A number of measures have been implemented by the UAE government and is widely reflective of the social progression in the country. Existing legislation has been amended and numerous personal and civil laws have been introduced.  The legislative reforms include permitting unmarried couples to cohabitate and relaxing alcohol restrictions. Moreover, the UAE has pledged to the criminalization of honour killings.

Furthermore, under the new legal system, non-Emiratis are allowed to address their personal affairs in accordance with the laws of their home country. This law is particularly relevant as there are over 200 nationalities residing in the UAE; currently, expatriates outnumber citizens approximately nine to one. Thereby, the shift away from traditional Islamic legal codes and characterization of the country as a Westernized destination will prove to be instrumental in promoting economic and societal advancement. Namely, the legal initiatives encourage tourism and foreign direct investment; moreover, it broadens the legal freedoms of citizens and non-Emiratis.

The reforms address key human rights issues that are present in traditional Islamic law. According Abdallah Al Kaabi, an Emirati filmmaker whose focus is taboo subjects of homosexuality and identity, “the new laws that are progressive and proactive.”

Most notably, the acknowledgement and criminalization of honour killings is a strong achievement for women’s rights. This is a traditional custom in which male relatives were given a lesser conviction for assaulting a woman who was seen to be dishonouring the family. According to human rights groups, thousands of women are assaulted and killed every year for bringing shame to the family in the UAE. The crackdown on this practice is a crucial step in safeguarding women’s rights. Moreover, the legislation will enforce harsher convictions on harassment of women and also recognizes that men can be victims of harassment. Whilst these amendments shed light to deeply embedded inequality and infrastructural discrimination towards women and gendered crime, the new laws have not entirely departed from traditional Islamic law in which punishments still include execution.

Additionally, the geo-political context is important to understanding the reason and timing of the establishment of the laws.  The UAE reforms were quickly announced after the U.S. facilitated a diplomatic deal to normalize relations between the Israel and the UAE. The strengthening of relations and the timing of the laws indicate the policies were made in the efforts to facilitate an influx of tourists and investment from neighbouring Israel into the UAE.  Similarly, the implementation of the reforms was strategically placed as Dubai readies itself to host the World Expo which is expected to bring 25 million people and commercial business to the country. Therefore, whilst the reforms do portray a tangible shift away from archaic customs and societal advancement, they should still be critically placed within the context of political and economic gain for the UAE.

Despite, the reforms seemingly being used for political expediency, the implementation of the laws is a milestone for the people of the UAE. Specifically, women and non-Emiratis are afforded more rights and entitlements under the new legal framework. Therefore, in the efforts to encourage foreign investment and tourism, the UAE has seemingly shifted towards modernization and this is indicative of a global, socially progressive society.

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