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United Arab Emirates relaxes Islamic laws on alcohol and cohabitation, criminalizes 'honor' killings

The broadening of personal freedoms reflects the changing profile of the skyscraper-studded Arab Gulf country.
Image: United Arab Emirates
Two men play backgammon while smoking a shisha water pipe at a restaurant overlooking in the Dubai Marina neighborhood in May 2015.Kamran Jebreili / AP file

DUBAI — The United Arab Emirates announced on Saturday a major overhaul of the country's Islamic personal laws, allowing unmarried couples to cohabitate, loosening alcohol restrictions and criminalizing so-called "honor killings."

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 and businesses, despite its legal system based on a strict interpretation of Islamic law.

The reforms aim to boost the country's economic and social standing and "consolidate the UAE's principles of tolerance," state-run WAM news agency reported.

The changes also reflect the efforts of the Emirates' rulers to keep pace with a rapidly changing society. In a country where expatriates outnumber citizens nearly nine to one, the amendments will also permit foreigners to avoid Islamic Shariah courts on issues like marriage, divorce and inheritance.

The announcement also follows a historic U.S.-brokered deal to normalize relations between the UAE and Israel, which is expected to bring an influx of Israeli tourists and investment.

"I could not be happier for these new laws that are progressive and proactive," said Emirati filmmaker Abdallah Al Kaabi, whose art has tackled taboo topics like homosexual love and gender identity.

"2020 has been a tough and transformative year for the UAE," he added.

Changes include scrapping penalties for alcohol consumption, sales and possession for those aged 21 and over.

Although liquor and beer are widely available in bars and clubs in the UAE's luxuriant coastal cities, individuals previously needed a government-issued 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.

The legal reforms were announced by state-run WAM news agency and detailed in state-linked newspaper The National.

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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 behavior.

In a move to better "protect women's rights," the government said it also decided to get rid of laws defending so-called "honor crimes," a widely criticized custom in which a male relative may evade prosecution for assaulting a woman seen as dishonoring her family.

The punishment for a crime committed to eradicate a woman's "shame," for promiscuity or disobeying religious and cultural strictures, will now be the same as for any other kind of assault.

However, traditional Islamic values remain strong in the federation of seven desert sheikhdoms.

The reforms said nothing of other behavior deemed insulting to local customs that have landed foreigners in jail in the past, such as acts of homosexuality, cross-dressing and public displays of affection.

The reforms come as the UAE gets ready to host the World Expo. The high-stakes event is planned to bring a flurry of commercial activity and some 25 million visitors to the tiny Arab Gulf country, after it was pushed back a year due to the coronavirus pandemic.