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U.A.E. Changes Laws to Attract Foreign Tourists and Investment

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BEIRUT, Lebanon — The United Arab Emirates announced a series of legal changes over the weekend that improved protections for women, loosened regulations on alcohol consumption and expanded the ability of noncitizens to follow foreign laws for inheritance and divorce.

The moves diminish the role of Islamic legal codes in the gulf Arab country’s justice system as it seeks to enhance its brand as a globalized, forward-looking place attractive to foreign tourists, professionals and investors.

The Emirates, which this year became third Arab country to normalize relations with Israel, hopes to welcome Israeli tourist and investors and is planning to host a world exposition next year that is expected to draw millions of visitors.

Nearly 90 percent of the 10 million people living in the Emirates are foreigners. While most are low-paid laborers from South Asia, the rest include professionals from the United States, Europe and other Arab countries.

That diversity of culture and religion has at times run headlong into the country’s laws, which are based on Islamic law, or Shariah. While the authorities willfully ignore many violations, foreigners have on occasion been arrested for such crimes as posting satirical videos online, public drunkenness or kissing.

The state-run Emirates New Agency announced the changes on Sunday, saying they would promote tolerance and improve the country’s place “as one of the most socially and economically attractive countries in the world.”

The National, a government-linked newspaper based in the capital, Abu Dhabi, called the changes “one of the biggest overhauls of the legal system in years.”

The newspaper reported that light sentences would be eliminated for so-called honor crimes, meaning when men abuse or kill female relatives for what are deemed to be improper relations with other men. Going forward, such crimes would be handled like other types of assault or homicide, the report said.

The changes also toughened the law against sexual harassment, increasing the maximum fine to about $27,000.

Other changes altered the laws governing divorce and inheritance for non-Emirati citizens.

Divorces in the Emirates will now follow the law in the country where the marriage was conducted, the paper reported. Previously, divorces for non-Muslims followed the laws in the husband’s home country, and divorces between Muslims were carried out according to Shariah.

Under the new laws, inheritance will be governed by the laws of the deceased’s home country. Previously, inheritance for Muslims was carried out according to Shariah, which usually allots female heirs half of what male heirs get, and non-Muslim heirs could petition to have their home country’s laws applied.

The National also reported that drinking alcohol, attempting suicide and the cohabitation of unmarried women and men would be decriminalized.

But it was not immediately clear how the new legal regime would be enforced, since local judicial authorities of the country’s seven emirates have considerable leeway in applying the laws, with the ability to determine, for example, where alcohol can be legally sold.

“Some of these reforms are quite important,” said Rothna Begum, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, specifically mentioning the decriminalization of attempted suicide and the removal of lenient sentences “that allow men to kill and harm women in the name of honor.”

But she had not seen the actual texts of the new laws, making it hard to judge their scope.

The changes to divorce laws did not apply to Emirati women, leaving them subject to laws Ms. Begum called discriminatory. And it was not clear whether the changes that allowed cohabitation of unmarried couples removed so-called indecency laws used to punish extramarital sex, she said.

Those laws had disproportionately been used against migrant women, she said, and allowed women who reported being raped to be prosecuted for adultery.

The new laws aimed to improve the country’s image ahead of Expo 2020, a global fair that was scheduled to be held in Dubai this October but was postponed until next year because of the coronavirus pandemic, Ms. Begum said. But they needed to be applied equally to everyone in the country.

“You can get away with a lot in Dubai,” she said. “The problem is that they still have a lot of discrimination depending on who you are.”

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