Tucked away in headlines dominated by the US President-designate Joe Biden’s neck to neck battle to the White House against Donald Trump and the social ferment in Europe over beheadings in France and attacks in Austria was an important proclamation. On 7th November, the UAE announced important changes in its criminal and civil codes, including significant alterations in the inheritance laws.
UAE, already one of the most liberal, tolerant and open of Arab states, went official with some important changes. President His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, in a series of decrees, amended crucial articles in the Personal Status Law, the Federal Penal Code and the Federal Penal Procedural Law.
On the one hand, the changes will serve those expatriates who wish to be governed by the laws of their parent countries in matters such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance. It will be their choice as to which laws they want applied to them. Expatriates, from an astonishing 200 countries around the world, are a part of the population of the UAE, and hence the amendments will be welcomed.
Consider two important possibilities concerning marriage and death. Suppose a couple has been married, say, in India, though only one partner is Indian while the other holds British nationality. While residing in the UAE, they, unfortunately, wish to part ways. The process might have turned into a legal and logistical nightmare. Now they will have the option to be governed by the laws of their home countries or the UAE when it comes to marriage, divorce, alimony, child support, and so on, as the case may be.
Suppose, similarly, someone living for long in the UAE passes away. What laws of inheritance would apply to his or her legal heirs and successors? Given the vast variance in bequest regulations across nationalities, financial stability and trust in the system would be affected if they were forced to comply with local laws. Now, the deceased person’s nationality will be taken into account in disposing of his property and assets. Real estate acquired and held in the UAE will continue to be governed by local laws.
While the amendments retain the death penalty for heinous offences such as sex with minors and mentally disabled people, honour crimes will also be treated as murder. Thus, certain tribal customs of seeking revenge against wrong-doers or punishing those who might have wronged a family’s honour, already rare, would be discouraged. Earlier, attempted suicide was a punishable crime, but now it would be regarded as a mental health issue requiring treatment.
But the most liberal of reforms concern issues of public indecency, cohabitation among unmarried couples, as well as the purchase and consumption of alcohol. Given the liberal atmosphere in the UAE, holding hands or showing affection in public would not be prosecuted. The new amendments have relaxed drinking laws. Only selling and serving alcohol to underage persons will now attract punishments.
The UAE is leading the region in upholding and enhancing the principles of tolerance. These legal reforms will send ripples across the world. Already a desired destination to tourists and expats alike, the UAE will be even more attractive to diverse travellers and talented professionals.
For too long it was supposed that non-Arab countries would front the modernisation of the Muslim world. Turkey, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and, even, Iran were expected to lead in this revolution. Some believed that India would also provide the impetus. But, more and more, it seems as if the Arab world will itself lead the call for change. By setting an example to the rest of the world as a haven of a peaceful, financially stable and successful multi-national, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and multi-cultural society, the UAE is showing the way to a better future through constitutional means.