Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 3 December 2020

Recent UAE legal reforms are at the heart of a greater transformation

The UAE continues to support its economy as it rolls out its growth agenda for the next 50 years. Victor Besa / The National 
The UAE continues to support its economy as it rolls out its growth agenda for the next 50 years. Victor Besa / The National 

In the past couple of weeks, we have seen the announcement of changes that can make a big difference to life in the Emirates. Decriminalisation of the consumption of alcohol, and of suicide and attempted suicide, along with a ruling that in the event of divorce or death residents from overseas will now be able to settle issues according to the laws of their countries of origin.

Another change is that in due course, the matter of bounced cheques will in practice be treated as a civil matter rather than a criminal one.

In terms of rules on residency and employment, the 10-year golden visa, first introduced last year, will now extend to holders of doctorates and high-performing students from local universities.

Besides this, the freelance visa rules in Abu Dhabi have been relaxed to allow nearly 50 categories of workers to take up part-time work.

The details have been covered in the news, but the summary above indicates just how extensive these changes are. It will take time before it is clear how everything will be implemented. It is obvious though that the whole suite of changes is rather dramatic.

More, I suspect, has yet to come.

Nothing quite so all-encompassing has been announced in the region for decades. As far as I can see, even though both citizens and other residents may have been taken by surprise, the changes have been widely welcomed.

The emirate of Fujairah on the UAE's east coast. Leslie Pableo / The National
The emirate of Fujairah on the UAE's east coast. Leslie Pableo / The National

Naturally, they have attracted considerable international media attention. It is big news and of interest to businessmen, tourists and others who have been planning investment or holidays in the Emirates.

I have, however, been disappointed by the way in which so much of that foreign commentary has portrayed the changes as being driven by a desire to boost the attractiveness of the environment to visitors or to those who might be considering making a life in the UAE.

UAE's latest reforms have given the real estate sector a lift. Getty
UAE's latest reforms have given the real estate sector a lift. Getty

Yes, there are aspects of the changes which will be attractive to those who look at us from the outside. If there is a benefit to the economy from that, all well and good.

There are though good, solid local reasons for the changes having been made that arise out of the way in which the UAE has developed over the decades.

As Emirati friends have commented, some of the new laws simply acknowledge that existing legislation has become unenforceable

One particular change that pleases me enormously has nothing to do with overseas visitors: the decriminalisation of suicide or attempted suicide. As I argued in a column many years ago, while both may be against some religious beliefs, those driven by desperation to attempt suicide need support and help, not punishment.

As Emirati friends have commented, some of the new laws simply acknowledge that existing legislation has become unenforceable. Changes in other areas, like those relating to divorce and inheritance, recognise the existence of the country’s widely-diverse population.

The UAE flag at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Victor Besa / The National
The UAE flag at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Victor Besa / The National

Although there have been incidents in the past where the implementation of some laws has caused criticism abroad, there are good enough reasons here at home for them to have been changed.

In terms of changes to visa regulations, it is no secret that government seeks to attract new high quality residents from abroad who can bring not just money – of value in boosting our residential property sector – but also skills that can contribute to an economy.

Steps like the extension of the golden visa make it easier for high-performing local students to stay in the country in which they have grown up and this makes perfect sense.

Abu Dhabi’s recycling station at Khalidiya. The emirate is trying to encourage more people to go green. Victor Besa / The National 
Abu Dhabi’s recycling station at Khalidiya. The emirate is trying to encourage more people to go green. Victor Besa / The National

While some other countries may have conflicts or difficulties that lead to a brain drain, there is nothing strange about the UAE seeking not only to encourage the talented not to leave, but to welcome new talent to its shores.

The decisions relate directly to our own issues, challenges and to the continuing evolution of the country. The UAE of today, after all, is very different from the country that came into existence nearly half a century ago.

To suggest, as some foreign commentators have done, that the changes have been driven by a desire to have a positive impact on the country’s image overseas reflects, in my view, a somewhat inaccurate knowledge of who we are and what we are.

These changes have been made after considerable discussion because they are perceived as being in the best interests of both UAE citizens and overseas residents alike. Not because there is a desire to impress foreign observers.

Peter Hellyer is a UAE cultural historian and columnist for The National

Updated: November 19, 2020 01:23 PM

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