UAE legal reforms: new alcohol laws explained

Amendments to UAE law remove penalties for the consumption of alcohol. Here’s what it means for you

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The UAE announced the biggest overhaul of its legal system in years on Saturday, affecting everything from divorce and inheritance to the consumption of alcohol.

The laws, effective immediately, reflect progressive measures that aim to attract more foreign direct investment and visitors to the country and to ease rules for residents of the Emirates.

A number of old acts were decriminalised, including the consumption of alcohol without a licence.

But what does it mean for residents and tourists? The National explains.

What has changed?

Alcohol consumption is no longer a criminal offence in the UAE.

This means anyone who drinks or is in possession of alcohol or sells alcoholic beverages in authorised areas without an alcohol licence will not face prosecution.

Previously, a charge for consuming alcohol without a licence could be tacked on if someone was arrested for another offence.

That happened rarely, but will no longer be enforced at all under the new law.

What rules still exist regarding the consumption of alcohol in the UAE?

Alcohol can only be consumed privately or in licensed public places.

A person must be at least 21 to drink legally in the UAE.

Anyone caught selling alcohol to someone deemed underage will be punished, according to the amendments to Federal Law No 3 of 1987 of the Penal Code.

“Penalties are limited to those who serve or sell alcoholic beverages to anyone under the age of 21 or who bought alcohol with the intention to give it to an underage individual," the law says.

The amendments also give each emirate “the right to issue legislation regulating this issue”.

This has always been the case. Sharjah, for example, is completely “dry” while the other emirates take different approaches to regulations regarding the sale of alcohol.

UAE makes changes to the law

UAE makes changes to the law

What are the laws in Abu Dhabi?

Restrictions on alcohol have been progressively updated in Abu Dhabi since 2018 when a note was issued to restaurants, bars and retailers in May ending “dry days” in the emirate.

It informed them alcohol would be permitted in licensed areas during "all religious occasions, throughout the year and in upcoming years".

Until then, the sale of alcohol was banned on the day preceding a number of Islamic holidays, including Waqfat Arafa, Al Isra’a and M’raj, the birth of the Prophet Mohammed and Islamic New Year.

In September, the emirate ended the alcohol licence system for residents.

A note sent to distribution companies and retailers said they were not required to ask customers to produce a card that showed they were eligible to buy alcohol.

It said customers must be at least 21 and the purchase should be for personal use, not resale, and that alcohol should be consumed in private homes or licensed areas only.

In recent years, shops, bars and restaurants seldom asked customers to show a licence, but customers were technically required to have one by law.

The decision removed any grey area over the legalities.

What about Dubai?

The new laws are federal and affect all emirates. No further changes were announced to the system in Dubai, other than those made in the summer, that require Dubai residents with alcohol licences to apply for a new card from September.

Several managers at alcohol shops told The National the card system would remain in place until the new law is officially introduced.

In Dubai, shops previously had to ask residents for a licence, or tourists for a temporary licence, before selling alcohol.

Bars and restaurants do not ask to see licences.

The changes were aimed at making it easier for residents to acquire one and to ensure the law was clear.