The United Arab Emirates announced on Saturday a major overhaul of the country’s Islamic personal laws, allowing unmarried couples to cohabitate, loosening alcohol restrictions and criminalizing so-called “honor killings.”
The broadening of personal freedoms reflects the changing profile of a country that has sought to bill itself as a skyscraper-studded destination for Western tourists, fortune-seekers and businesses despite its legal system based on a hard-line interpretation of Islamic law. The changes also reflect the efforts of the Emirates’ rulers to keep pace with a rapidly changing society at home.
The announcement also follows a historic U.S.-brokered deal to normalize relations between the UAE and Israel, which is expected to bring an influx of Israeli tourists and investment.
Changes include scrapping penalties for alcohol consumption, sales and possession for those 21 and over. The legal reforms were announced on state-run WAM news agency and detailed in state-linked newspaper The National.
Previously, individuals needed a liquor license to purchase, transport or have alcohol in their homes. The new rule would apparently allow Muslims who have been barred from obtaining licenses to drink alcoholic beverages freely.
Another amendment allows for “cohabitation of unmarried couples,” which has long been a crime in the UAE. Authorities, especially in the more free-wheeling financial hub of Dubai, tend to look the other way when it comes to foreigners, but the threat of punishment still lingered for such behavior.
The government also decided to get rid of laws protecting “honor crimes,” a widely criticized tribal custom in which a male relative may evade prosecution for assaulting a woman seen as dishonoring a family. The punishment for a crime committed to eradicate a woman’s “shame,” for promiscuity or disobeying religious and cultural strictures, will now be the same for any other kind of assault.
In a country where expatriates outnumber citizens nearly nine to one, the amendments will permit foreigners to avoid Islamic Shariah courts on issues like marriage, divorce and inheritance.
The reforms come as the UAE gets ready to host the high-stakes World Expo. The event is planned to bring a flurry of commercial activity and some 25 million visitors to the country, after it was pushed back a year because of the coronavirus pandemic.