When Patrick went to a media launch for a new smartphone in Dubai, the Gulf’s tourism and commercial hub, the expatriate never imagined that the evening would end in a police station.
After an enthusiastic embrace of the free bar that so often graces such marketing events, a verbal altercation with a taxi driver led to his arrest.
His contrite response to police questioning over his non-existent liquor licence — the official permission residents and visitors need to drink alcohol in the United Arab Emirates — helped secure his release after a night in the cells. A friend, who went through a similar experience, was “mouthy and aggressive”. He faced a different fate.
“They threw the book at him,” said Patrick, who declined to give his surname. “He went to court, paid a fine and left Dubai as soon as he got his passport back.”
Boozy brunches, high-end restaurants and seedy nightclubs have long formed part of Dubai’s allure for expatriates putting down roots in the conservative Gulf and tourists seeking winter sun. But for decades, consuming alcohol without a licence left people liable to a fine or jail term, generating headlines in the western press about legal jeopardy in Dubai.
Now, as part of a clutch of social and legal reforms designed to make life easier for the expatriates that dominate the population, alcohol is to be decriminalised.
“The government is not saying that drinking alcohol isn’t haram (forbidden) — they are saying this is between you and God, and we are not going to police this,” said one Emirati briefed on the legal amendments.
“This marks a shift towards a more civic society,” he added. “The justification for these changes is that to attract international talent here, we need to align to a global way of doing things.”
The UAE, an autocratic federal Sheikhdom, has long pitched itself as an outpost of tolerance in a region riven by religious extremism. With bold moves such as forging diplomatic ties with Israel, the country’s leadership has shown a determination to overturn age-old norms and tilt away from religiously oriented laws drafted in the 1970s.
And unlike other Gulf states that are encouraging the departure of expatriates to provide more jobs for nationals, the UAE is seeking to revive population growth after the economic toll of the pandemic triggered an exodus of hundreds of thousands of foreign workers.
With this in mind, more changes are planned. The UAE has expanded its programme of long-term visas for highly skilled foreigners, doctors and specialised degree holders in sectors such as artificial intelligence and epidemiology. Foreigners are to be allowed to own 100 per cent of onshore businesses, removing the need for nationals to hold a controlling stake, potentially boosting investment.
“The recent changes modernising the local legal landscape for expats are likely to have a positive impact in attracting and retaining top talent,” said Catherine Workman, head of the Middle East for Pinsent Masons.
Other changes in some of the norms governing personal lives, such as making it legal for unmarried couples to live together, would also be welcomed by many, said Michael Rowlands, a partner in the family team at the UK’s JMW Solicitors, though questions remain. “At the moment, an unmarried woman who seeks medical treatment while pregnant runs the risk of being reported to the authorities for having extramarital sex and any child born out of wedlock is not recognised by the law,” he said.
Expatriates will also be able to use their home jurisdictions in family matters, something that is theoretically possible, but difficult in practice, say lawyers.
These shifts would also be a “game changer” for mothers, who could use English law to ask a judge for permission to leave the country permanently with their children, said Mr Rowlands. At present, a mother cannot apply to leave the country with her children without the father’s consent.
Applying overseas law could also favour the worse-off spouse in a divorce case, he added, meaning the region would “no longer be a haven for wealthy husbands”.
Other amendments, such as criminalising “honour” crimes against women who bring “shame” on to their families and decriminalising suicide, stand to benefit the minority national community.
And it is not just expatriates who will benefit from the decriminalisation of alcohol. In most Dubai pubs, those in national dress are asked to remove their traditional headscarf before being served alcohol. “Many come here and they mainly know the rules — they also cannot sit at the bar,” said Robyn, a bartender. “Sometimes they ask us to serve the drink in a tea cup.”
Some Emiratis, who make up only one in nine of the UAE population, have expressed concerns about the secularising reforms, fearing society is turning away from Islam. Others oppose any moves that cement the status and permanence of the majority expatriate population.
“Naturally, there are few religious and conservative segments in UAE society who are against these changes,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati professor of political science. “But most citizens trust government decisions and its determination to modernise the society.”
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