EXPLAINED: Implications of UAE’s new laws on alcohol, suicide, rape, others

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The Government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has relaxed its Islamic personal laws in a major overhaul to further consolidate what it called “tolerance principles”.

The new laws decriminalise alcohol and suicide but criminalises so-called “honour killings”, a custom which allows a male to escape prosecution for assaulting a female family member considered dishonouring her family.

The new laws also allow unmarried couples to cohabitate, as well as introduce huge changes to divorce or separation laws, divisions of assets, wills and inheritance.

Giving a breakdown of the “new raft of legal reforms”, Dubai-based journalist, Ashleigh Stewart said that it was so huge it could not be “overstated”.


She wrote, “Alcohol has been decriminalised in the UAE

“This means:

“You no longer need an alcohol licence to buy or drink booze in the UAE – all emirates –

“Before now, if you bought or drank alcohol without a license you could be charged (it was rare though)

“Legal drinking age is 21.”


She wrote, “Suicide/ attempted suicide has been decriminalised in the UAE

“This means: –

“before now, suicide was illegal – people who attempted to kill themselves could be imprisoned/ fined

“- also, people who tried to give CPR or first aid etc could be blamed for someone’s injury or death”.

Legal reforms for the protection of women in the UAE

She wrote, “This means: –

“‘honour crimes’ are abolished – used to be a category of crime where a male relative got a lighter sentence for assaulting a female relative

“- these will now be treated like any other assault.”

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“- There will now be harsher punishments for men who harass women, no matter how mild or severe

“- The punishment for the rape of a minor or someone with “limited mental capacity” is to be execution

Divorce/ separation/ wills and inheritance reforms in the UAE

She wrote, “This means:

– the laws from a person’s country of origin can now be used for divorces and the division of assets

– previously, Islamic law, or sharia, was used for family law cases involving expats

– Changes also cover wills/ inheritance – Before, if someone died – assets could be divided under sharia law

– Now, laws from a person’s country or origin applies for how assets are divided among next of kin, unless there’s a will (UAE property an exception – falls under UAE law)”


Stewart wrote, “Unmarried couples/ mixed gender flatmates can now live together in the UAE

This means:

– Before now, it was illegal for an unmarried couple (including flatmates of the opposite sex) to share a house

– Those who did could have been penalised, though it was pretty rare”

“Important detail in UAE law reforms around sex before marriage (previously illegal) now that it’s legal for unmarried couples to live together

“Law doesn’t explicitly permit sex outside of marriage – but says consensual sex will no longer be punished by law.”

Stewart explained that most of these changes have been the unofficial norm for years.

“Yes, unmarried couples aren’t supposed to live together – but they do.

“You’re not supposed to drink alcohol in a bar without a licence – but people do.

“But this is good progress, nonetheless,” she explained in a Saturday thread on Twitter.

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John is a University of Lagos-trained journalist who has read almost every novel written by Chinua Achebe, Jeffrey Archer and Dan Brown. He's an expert Scrabble and draughts player who is also excellent at swimming.
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