Patrick Obeid
Patrick Obeid
Senior Associate

The Unites Arab Emirates (UAE) has embarked on one of the most significant overhauls of the legal system in years, with changes to personal and family laws, and other areas affecting people’s daily lives.

The laws, effective immediately, reflect progressive measures to improve living standards, and for the UAE to continue to be a destination for foreign direct investment and people from around the world. Amendments to existing laws and the introduction of new laws seek to regulate crucial personal and civil laws, with provisions allowing non-Emiratis to have their personal affairs dealt with according to the law of their home country. The changes also mean that the laws of a person’s country of origin can be used for divorces and inheritance; meaning that Islamic law, or Sharia, would be rarely used when it comes to family law cases involving expats.

Divorce and Inheritance

One of the most significant developments relates to divorce, separation and the division of assets if a marriage breaks down. If a couple were married in their home country, but get a divorce in the UAE, the laws of the country where the marriage took place will apply. The new law mentions joint assets and joint accounts, and that the court could be called on to mediate if there was no agreement between the two parties.

The changes also cover wills and inheritance. Until now, family members of a deceased person, particularly in acrimonious cases, could have found assets were divided under Sharia, which expats may be unused to.

Now, a person’s citizenship will dictate how their assets are divided among their next of kin, unless they have written a will. The one exception is for property purchased in the UAE, which will be managed according to UAE law.

Harassment and Assault

 Various changes are looking to protect the rights of women. There will no longer be a distinction of crime known as “honor crimes”, where a male relative can obtain a lighter sentence for assaulting a female relative under the guise of “protecting honor”. Instead, such incidents will be treated as crimes, same to any other assault.

There will be tougher punishments for men who subject women to harassment of any kind. The law appears to be a reiteration of legislation brought in last year that brought tougher offences for harassment, and also recognized that men could be victims of harassment or stalking.

The punishment for the rape of a minor or someone with limited mental capacity will be execution.

Alcohol Consumption

 Alcohol consumption is no longer a criminal offence. Anyone who drinks or is in possession of alcohol or sells alcoholic beverages in authorized areas without an alcohol licence will not face penalties. Earlier, such prosecutions would be rare, but an individual could be charged for consuming alcohol without a licence if they were arrested for another offence. This will no longer happen under the new law.

A person still must be at least 21 years old to drink legally in the UAE and anyone caught selling alcohol to someone deemed underage will be punished.

Cohabitation for Unmarried Couples

The law will permit the legal cohabitation of unmarried couples for the first time. Until now, it has been illegal for an unmarried couple, or even unrelated flat mates, to share a home in the Emirates.

In recent years, the authorities have rarely targeted or prosecuted anyone found in breach of this. But it will ensure people feel they are on the right side of the law when they move to the country.

Suicide and ‘Good Samaritans’

Suicide and attempted suicide will be decriminalized. Until now, someone who tried to take their life but survived could have been prosecuted, though such instances were rare, if not unheard of. Police and courts would ensure vulnerable people receive mental-health support.

The law will ensure “Good Samaritans” who intervene in situations where people are in need cannot be held liable for the outcome of those they help. Under a long-standing, but rarely used provision, it was possible for someone who went to the aid of someone, to give CPR or other first aid, to be held accountable for their injury or death. The new law states that “any person who is committing an act out of good intention, that may end up hurting that person, will not be punished”.

Judicial Process

The new law mandates that translators are provided for defendants and witnesses in court, if they do not speak Arabic. The court must ensure legal translators are available.

Also, the UAE has issued a new law regarding the civil personal status applicable to non-Muslim UAE nationals and non-Muslim expats resident in the UAE, unless any of them selects to adhere to the application of laws of his/her home country law. The new law will be effective on 1 February 2023; and it deals with various matters relating to marriage, equality between men and women in rights and duties (testimony, inheritance, divorce, children custody), divorce, inheritance, wills, and proof of parentage.

These set of laws come as part of the UAE’s efforts to develop its legislative and investment environment, and to foster tolerance.

To know more about more details, please feel free to contact our UAE partner Zainab Aziz

This article, together with any commentary, does not constitute legal advice. It is provided solely for information purposes on a complimentary basis, without consideration of any specific objectives, circumstances, or facts. It reflects then current views of the writer which may modify in time and based on differing objectives, circumstances, or facts. Access to this article does not form any attorney- client relationship.

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