The biggest change to UAE laws in history

In the run-up to its 50th anniversary, the country has announced new laws to reflect an evolving society

Before the UAE was founded 50 years ago, the laws governing life on the northern shores of the Arabian Peninsula were very different. A small, largely monocultural population lived by a tried and tested mix of Islamic and customary law, well understood by all who came under its bracket.

But since 1971, the country has undergone one of the fastest rates of economic development ever seen, bringing with it huge social change. Throughout this period, people from all over the world came. Many would choose to make it a home, have families and long-term careers.

The ever-changing social and economic life of the country led to a series of evolutions in laws. On Saturday, a new tranche was announced, marking by far the biggest update to the country's legal system in its history.

They include, in part, measures to protect personal data, to tackle fake news and stronger copyright rules. Investors and entrepreneurs will be allowed to establish and own onshore companies in almost all sectors. The new laws also increase protection for domestic workers and effectively decriminalise consensual relationships outside marriage.

It is important to put these developments in their wider context; the past year has seen a flurry of reforms. In November of last year, new laws decriminalised suicide, changed regulations on alcohol consumption and boosted women's rights, among others. Last month, Abu Dhabi instituted new laws for the emirate's non-Muslim residents, allowing them to conduct procedures such as inheritance claims, divorce and child custody disputes in the jurisdictions of their countries of origin.

What distinguishes last week's announcement is its scale. More details will be released, but they are likely to cover data protection, higher education and crime and punishment.

The announcement comes in the run-up to the UAE's 50th anniversary. Looking to the next five decades, maintaining the country’s growth is high on the agenda, and this ultimately will come down to people's hard work and creativity. Forward-looking laws, however, create an environment where prosperity can be built.

All of this is also an important standard to set for the region. The 2020 instalment of the Arab Youth Survey found that nearly half of young Arabs have considered emigrating from their home countries – 15 per cent of them were actively making plans to do so. For the past decade, the UAE has been the destination of choice for the majority of them.

The next 50 years will throw up new challenges. Many will be felt particularly hard in the Middle East. To weather them, the UAE is planning decades in advance, not months. Legal reform is a complex, but hugely powerful force to strengthen societies and ensure their resilience. For everyone in the UAE, therefore, the largest legal change in its history should be a moment of great importance.

Published: November 29th 2021, 3:00 AM