How Expats Benefit From Recent UAE Law Changes

Carlie: Hey there, it’s Carlie with the Expat Focus podcast.

Recent updates and changes to the United Arab Emirates’ legal system are set to benefit the millions of expats that call the country home. Law reforms announced in November cover divorce, wills, and local rules around the consumption of alcohol and unmarried couples living together.

Alexandra Tribe, lawyer and owner of Expatriate Law, joins me in this episode to talk through what the changes mean for the foreigners in the UAE. A quick reminder, before we get started, to head to expatfocus.com for more information. You can also continue the conversation about these law changes in our ‘Expat UAE’ Facebook group.

Let’s go over the key changes that impact foreigners living in the UAE. First of all, Alexandra, how excited were you at hearing this news?

Alexandra: I was hugely surprised. This is the most amazing development in the laws in the UAE, I feel, that has taken place for many, many, many years. It’s going to have a significant impact on expats living in Dubai and Abu Dhabi and the whole of the UAE. It will mean that laws can be more in line with the foreign laws that people are used to from their home countries. And it covers such a wide range of topics as well, as we can discuss.

Carlie: Yes. Looking at what I’ve seen reported, and there might be more that didn’t make the headlines … The first one that really stood out to me is that expats in the UAE can choose to have their personal affairs dealt with according to the law of their home country. And that hasn’t been the case until now?

Alexandra: Well, it has to a certain extent. So, the previous law in the UAE, the personal status law, allowed non-Muslim expats to nominate to use foreign laws in their divorce or family law case in the UAE courts. And what law was applied would depend on the type of case that was being undertaken.

So, for a divorce case, you would use the law of the husband’s home country, and for financial cases, such as maintenance and things like that, you would use the law of the person being protected, such as the child or the wife seeking maintenance. But what tended to happen is the application of those foreign laws was very difficult, unless the parties agreed that the foreign laws would be applied.

So, the law stated that, yes, foreign laws should be applied in non-Muslim cases, but only if a list of criteria was met. And those were things like: the foreign law could be ascertained and the judges could understand and apply the foreign law. And it all became a very onerous task.

And, more importantly, the parties tended to disagree as to whether foreign law should be applied, because for one party it was going to be beneficial, while for the other party it was more beneficial to use local laws. And, therefore, we found that foreign laws used to be very rarely applied in the UAE courts – especially when those foreign laws were the laws from countries such as England, which applies a statutory plus case law legal system. The volume of law that would have needed to be translated would be significant.

The new laws provide real clarity, because there is going to be no dispute about which laws should be applied. In the case of divorce and the issues that arise from divorce, such as the financial settlements, the law to be applied is the law of the place where the parties were married. So that’s brilliant. It provides real clarity. And I look forward to seeing how this is implemented by the courts.

Carlie: What does it mean for cases, for example, of inheritance or wills?

Alexandra: Well, it will depend, because the law at the moment talks mainly about marriage and divorce cases and the application of foreign laws for those types of personal status cases. What was already in existence in the UAE was the wills process for non-Muslims.

So, as you may know, non-Muslim expats have been able to, for some time, register their will with the DIFC court and, more recently, with the ADGM, the Abu Dhabi courts. So, this was already a great development by the UAE to recognise the difference between Muslim and non-Muslim inheritance issues.

But the real interest in these changes in the law is to do with expatriate divorce. Because what had happened in the past is that those divorcing in the UAE had rushed to try and issue proceedings in their home countries, which was often possible, to ensure that their financial settlement was dealt with under the laws that they recognise – that showed the more fair and sharing of family assets, regardless of whose name they were in.

So, for example, I advise mainly British expats living in the UAE and help them to divorce through the English courts, because the English court system is such that, [for] expats living in the UAE, if one of the parties of the marriage were British, in that they were born in England or had significant links to England, then they could divorce through the English courts, regardless of where they were living now.

And that was important, because then a wife, for example, could receive a share of her husband’s assets, wherever those assets were around the world. And they could receive generous maintenance for themselves for a longer period of time and, of course, for their children.

So, the new UAE system will mean that they can try and apply those home country laws through the Dubai courts. And there may be some initial teething difficulties with the local judges getting their heads around the different legal systems, but I still feel it’s a significant development.

Carlie: And another significant development with this law reform seems to be that unmarried couples in the UAE can now live together. That wasn’t always the case?

Alexandra: No, that’s come in with these recent changes. And that makes a huge difference. I know that the UAE, particularly Dubai, has always been very tolerant of unmarried couples living together. And this has been so especially since there’s been an increase, a huge increase, in the UAE of expat families.

But still, it provides much reassurance to people moving to the UAE that this is now within the law, that they can live together and have their rights recognised as an unmarried couple.

Carlie: Hmm. I’m sure we’ve all read those horror stories of, you know, a couple being arrested on the beach for kissing or that sort of thing. So, I can imagine how, if you’re wanting to live with someone and you’re not married in the UAE, previously that would have been a bit of a difficult one to navigate and make sure you’re not accidentally breaking the law.

Alexandra: Yes, exactly. But I think expats will still need to be conscious that this is a Muslim country and the culture is very different. And they need to be respectful of this Muslim country, even though it is increasingly tolerant to the Western ways. There needs to be some respect of the local culture, so that everyone can get along together.

Carlie: Alexandra, you’ve had first-hand experience of living in the Emirates. How have you seen expat life there evolve over the years? And, particularly now with this law change, what does that really signify to you about how this country is adapting?

Alexandra: I first moved to Dubai in 2007, and then there was a significant number of expats, but nothing like the numbers that there are today. And I saw Dubai really grow and flourish over the years, with the Dubai mall being built and lots of new housing developments. And it was incredible to see how Dubai adapted to this shifting and growing expat population.

There have been a number of changes to the law, when I was in Dubai and afterwards, that have been developed to take into account this increasing expat population. And I think these new changes of the law show a shift in the approach of the UAE, in terms of recognising that the expat population is a long-term population in Dubai. And it shows increasing prosperity and people’s faith in the region as a prosperous place to live. So, I’m hugely encouraged by it.

Carlie: And do you expect that, with these latest law reforms, the UAE will become more attractive to expat foreigners, who may have been hesitant to move or set up businesses there in the past?

Alexandra: Absolutely. I do. I think it will take some time to see how these cases play out in the courts and how matters are dealt with, but I think there’s been so many new changes in the way that the Dubai courts and the DIFC courts approach investment and business dealings as a whole. It’s only becoming more and more positive as a place to do business.

Carlie: Another point I saw in this law reform announcement was that alcohol would be decriminalised. What has been the Emirate stance on alcohol, and how have expats navigated that until now?

Alexandra: Previously, you needed to have a booze license, they called it, to purchase alcohol, if you were a non-Muslim. And these new laws will change things significantly and allow non-Muslims to purchase alcohol. I think, again, it’s another step towards a lifestyle that we’re more used to in Europe, and it will make people feel much more at ease living in the UAE to have these restrictions freed up.

So, I think it’s great news. I think, again, there still needs to be cultural sensitivity when drinking alcohol, especially taking into account religious holidays and things like that, but I’m sure that the expat population living in the UAE will be conscious of that.

Carlie: Alexandra, you mentioned, with the case of the court changes, that time will tell – some cases sort of have to be tried and tested before we see the effectiveness, I guess, of these reforms. How long do you think that will take? And what else do you expect may be on the reform agenda in the future?

Alexandra: Well, I think that it may take some time to see these changes, because British expats, certainly, living in the UAE … If there was a woman who wanted to make sure she received her fair share of matrimonial assets, including some that may be in England or elsewhere, it’s likely that they will still rush to the English court to deal with it, where it’s a familiar system.

The system has been in place for a long time, and they can rely, with security, on the outcome. Whereas the approach in Dubai is more uncertain. We don’t know how it’s going to be panned out through the courts. We don’t know whether it will be too difficult for the judges to read, review and interpret the many thousands of pages of English family laws before applying them. And we don’t know whether those laws may still be interpreted by UAE judges with a more Islamic cultural approach.

So, we’ll have to see how it pans out. And the fact that wives will continue to try and issue proceedings urgently in England … It may mean it takes some time for there to be test cases through the UAE courts. But the UAE is becoming increasingly good at producing open court judgements, which we can read up on. They’re often translated and put online. So, we’ll be able to see what’s going on throughout the court systems, read up on the judgments, and see how the law is applied. So, that’s brilliant.

Carlie: What’s your advice, if you do have an inheritance or a will or a divorce situation that you want to kick off proceedings with soon?

Alexandra: My advice is to make sure that you get legal advice. Friends and online help are brilliant, but that advice is given not on your particular facts. You may be relying on third-hand advice from friends or others that isn’t applicable in your own case. So, it’s relatively inexpensive to get an hour’s legal advice online, confidentially, and that’s essential. You need to know what law applies to your particular case.

There are so many people that I speak to who have no idea that they have a right to divorce through the English courts. They may not be English themselves, but they may, without realising it, have established the correct links to be able to start proceedings in England. And that may be for divorce or for maintenance or for financial settlements, or it may be for children-related disputes. There are many ways to deal with things in courts, other than in the UAE.

And it’s important to get advice in all potential jurisdictions, so that you can weigh up the pros and cons and work out what is best for your case. And importantly, I’m afraid, time is of the essence. Usually, the person who issues proceedings first is the one that is able to proceed with their case in that chosen jurisdiction.

And if your spouse is the one to start first, it may not be in your preferred jurisdiction. And then you’ll have to go along with that jurisdiction court choice and that choice of law, or face what can be a costly jurisdiction dispute. So, my advice is to seek the advice early. It may even be before you consider that your marriage is ultimately at an end. At least, then, you’re prepared.

Carlie: That’s it for today. Be sure to check out our other podcast interviews, including my chat with Alexandra about three common legal challenges for British expats. If you’d like to support the show, you can follow or subscribe on your favourite podcast app; just search ‘Expat Focus’. We’re ‘Expat Focus’ on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. I’ll catch you next time.