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Drinking Alcohol And Cohabiting Outside Marriage Becomes Legal In The UAE

Two men play backgammon while smoking a shisha water pipe at a restaurant overlooking in the Dubai Marina neighborhood in May 2015 | Image: Kamran Jebreili / AP file

The United Arab Emirates has announced that drinking alcohol and cohabiting outside of marriage are to be allowed in a major overhaul of the country’s Islamic personal laws.

The broadening of personal freedoms reflects the changing profile of a country that has sought to bill itself as a Westernised destination for tourists, fortune-seekers and businesses despite its strict Islamic legal code that has previously triggered court cases against foreigners.

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The reforms aim to boost the country’s economic and social standing and “consolidate the UAE’s principles of tolerance,” said state-run WAM news agency, which offered only minimal details in the surprise weekend announcement.

The government decrees behind the changes were outlined extensively in state-linked newspaper The National, which did not cite its source.

The move follows a historic US-brokered deal to normalise relations between the UAE and Israel, which is expected to bring an influx of Israeli tourists and investment. It also comes as skyscraper-studded Dubai gets ready to host the World Expo.

The high-stakes event, expected to bring a flurry of commercial activity and some 25 million visitors to the country, was set for October but pushed back a year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The emirate’s tourism sector, which accounts for around five per cent of GDP, has been battered by global lockdowns and restrictions on flights.

Dubai, the United Arab Emirates | Image: AP

The changes, which The National said would take immediate effect, also reflect the efforts of the Emirates’ rulers to keep pace with a rapidly changing society at home.

“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 21 and over.

Although liquor and beer is widely available in bars and clubs in the UAE’s luxuriant coastal cities, individuals needed a government-issued license to purchase, transport or have alcohol in their homes. The new rule would allow Muslims who have been barred from obtaining licenses to drink alcoholic beverages freely.

Another amendment allows for ‘cohabitation of unmarried couples,’ which has long been a crime in the UAE.

Authorities, especially in the more freewheeling financial hub of Dubai, often looked the other way when it came to foreigners, but the threat of punishment still lingered. Attempted suicide, forbidden in Islamic law, would also be decriminalised, The National reported.

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