The United Arab Emirates announced on Saturday a major overhaul of the country’s Islamic personal laws, allowing unmarried couples to cohabitate and loosening alcohol restrictions.
The Gulf country also sought to criminalise so-called “honour killings”, a widely criticised tribal custom in which a male relative may evade prosecution for assaulting a woman seen as dishonouring a family.
The government said the legal reforms were part of efforts to improve legislation and the investment climate in the country, as well as to consolidate “tolerance principles”.
“I could not be happier for these new laws that are progressive and proactive,” said Emirati film-maker Abdallah Al Kaabi, whose art has tackled taboo topics such as homosexual love and gender identity. 2020 has been a tough and transformative year for the UAE.”
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 hardline 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 an historic US-brokered deal to normalise relations between the UAE and Israel, which is expected to bring an influx of Israeli tourists and investment.
Bahrain and Sudan followed suit in formally establishing diplomatic ties with Israel in US-brokered deals reached over the past couple of months.
The Palestinians have slammed the deals as grave betrayals by the Arab states, further undermining their efforts to achieve self-determination. Several Palestinian groups formally condemned the agreements.
The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), based in Ramallah, the occupied West Bank, called the normalisation “another treacherous stab to the Palestinian cause”. And in Gaza, Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said the decision to normalise relations with Israel “represents a grave harm to the Palestinian cause, and it supports the occupation”.
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 the 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 behaviour.
The government also decided to get rid of laws protecting so-called “honour killings.” The punishment for a crime committed to eradicating a woman’s “shame” for promiscuity or disobeying religious and cultural strictures will now be the same for any other kind of assault.
Human rights groups say thousands of women and girls are killed across the Middle East and South Asia each year by family members angered at perceived damage to their “honour”. This could include eloping, fraternising with men, or any transgression of conservative values regarding women.
“There will be tougher punishments for men who subject women to harassment of any kind, which is thought to cover street harassment or stalking,” The National reported.
In a country where expatriates outnumber citizens nearly nine to one, the amendments will permit foreigners to avoid Islamic courts on issues such as 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.