United Arab Emirates banks on social reform to help pull itself out of economic slump


Recent reforms in the United Arab Emirates affecting everything from women’s rights to alcohol sales are a sign the majority-expat country sees liberalization as key to its economic prosperity. 

The move to reform a series of laws governing individual freedoms and social mores comes as the country of nearly 10 million people and a $524-billion economy struggles with a plunge in oil prices and the coronavirus pandemic. 

“I think they are very pragmatic reforms that have to do with economics and … the need to socially liberalize in order to economically thrive,” said Bernard Haykel, a professor of near eastern studies at Princeton University. 

U.A.E., a federation of seven emirates, is reporting more than 165,250 cases of COVID-19 and about 567 deaths. 

Nearly 90 per cent of the population of the young Gulf state, which is just shy of 50 years old, are foreigners, many of them migrant workers in construction, domestic or service jobs. 

The expatriate population includes roughly 40,000 Canadians, who are mainly concentrated in the international business and tourist hubs of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the capital. 

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, prime minister and vice-president of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Dubai, has been introducing a range of social changes this year. (Christopher Pike/Reuters)

Relaxation of Islamic laws

The changes, which came into effect on Nov. 7, include introducing tougher laws against the harassment of women, an overhaul of how divorce and separation proceedings are decided, changes to the division of assets and the decriminalization of alcohol consumption. 

In the eyes of the state, the aim of the reforms is to boost the country’s economic and social standing and “consolidate the U.A.E’s principles of tolerance,” the state-run Emirates News Agency, or WAM, reported. 

It’s a position that could also put the country, which has branded itself as an international destination for work and travel, in good stead as it prepares to attract at least 25 million visitors to the World Expo, to be held for the first time in the Middle East in October 2021. 

A cyclist rides along a road in Dubai as the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest skyscraper, is seen in the skyline behind. The U.A.E.’s oil-dependent economy was forecast to shrink by as much as six per cent, or $31 billion, this year as the country suffered from slumping oil prices and the impact of the pandemic on industry, shipping and travel. (Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images)

The sweeping changes mean that individuals no longer have to buy a special licence to purchase or consume alcohol as long as they are 21. In the past, Muslims were banned from obtaining such licences, which is no longer the case.

Under updated inheritance laws, assets and estates of non-Emirati citizens will no longer be divided under Islamic law, known as Sharia, but according to the laws of their country of citizenship — regardless of religion. 

The moves are in line with new divorce proceedings, which allow non-Emirati couples who divorce in the U.A.E. to have the law of the country where the marriage took place enforced. Previously, non-Muslim expats had to petition for the application of their home country laws. 

A shift in attitudes on mental health

Under the new rules, there are stronger penalties for those who subject women to harassment, and lenient sentences have been abolished for so-called honour crimes committed by men against female relatives under the guise of protecting the honour of the family. 

The country has been making a number of social changes in recent years. Last December, the charge of sexual harassment was added to the penal code and allowed men to be recognized as victims of harassment.

Like the rest of the United Arab Emirates, Dubai has branded itself as an international destination for tourists and business. The roughly 40,000 Canadians who live and work in U.A.E. are mainly concentrated in that city and the capital, Abu Dhabi.  (Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters)

The reforms also usher in some changes aimed at addressing mental health issues that have been exacerbated during the pandemic. Under the new rules, those who attempt suicide will no longer face potential prosecution by the courts. In addition, in May, the U.A.E. National Programme for Happiness and Well-being set up a mental health helpline for those dealing with stress and anxiety. 

Monica Salloum, 22, who moved from U.A.E. to Toronto to study in 2017, hopes the reforms will lead to more access to mental health support. Such help was not easily available when she was attending high school in U.A.E.  

“It was definitely a stressful time for me, and I struggled to make long-term decisions,” she said. “I could tell a lot of my friends were dealing with emotional distress, too, so I hope the changes help people overcome those barriers and get access to mental health wellness.” 

Though some of the laws, such as the prosecution of suicide attempts, were rarely invoked, the reforms offer legal assurances that they won’t ever be.

Unmarried couples now free to share a home

The reforms include lifting the ban on unmarried couples living together, which was a source of stress for people such as Jean Paul Khlat, a 46-year-old Canadian citizen who’s been working as a management consultant for the U.A.E. for the past 15 years. 

“The landlord gave us a lot of problems,” Khlat said of living with an ex-partner. “He didn’t have a problem with us specifically, but he was afraid of getting in trouble with the law. It was too much pressure on us, both on the legal side and socially.”

The reforms reflect a series of secular-leaning concessions for the oil-dependent Gulf state and a shift in cultural attitudes, which some observers say could help the country’s financial situation. 

A couple watches the sunset in Dubai this August. The recent reforms include the lifting of a ban on unmarried couples living together. (Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images)

The economy was forecast to shrink by as much as six per cent, or $31 billion, this year, according to the most recent World Bank update in October. 

An estimated 900,000 jobs, affecting about 10 per cent of the population, were lost in the U.A.E. according to an Oxford Economics report in May. The report pointed to an expat exodus across the Gulf region due to layoffs during the pandemic and workers without citizenship or permanent residency having to return home. 

Pandemic impact 

The spread of the coronavirus forced the U.A.E. in April and May to issue lockdown orders and impose travel restrictions and curfews. Restrictions on movement, which have since eased, drastically impacted industrial, shipping and transportation activity.

Dubai, the most populous city, has spent $2.42 billion so far this year to help prop up the local economy. 

A man at Al Bateen Executive Airport in Abu Dhabi wears a mask to protect himself against the coronavirus as he stands before a reflection of the plane carrying U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week. The pandemic has impacted U.A.E.’s economy and claimed almost 600 lives. (Patrick Semansky/AFP/Getty Images)

“The core challenge of a country like the U.A.E. is their almost exclusive dependence on oil revenue for their economy and their livelihood,” Princeton’s Haykel said.

“For them to become less dependent on oil, they have to manufacture and produce things or provide services that generate wealth. To do that, they have to become places that are attractive to their own people and to outsiders.” 

While the social reforms are being praised among some residents, a UN analysis published in September said the pandemic put the status of residence and work permits for migrant workers in flux, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation. 

Unlike in neighbouring Saudi Arabia, which earlier this year loosened restrictions on 10 million workers, allowing them to change jobs and leave the country without their employer’s permission, the U.A.E. still leaves workers’ legal status in the hands of employers, who act as their sponsors.

A health worker checks the body temperature of a migrant worker who has recovered from COVID-19 in the Warsan neighbourhood of Dubai, where people infected or suspected of being infected by the coronavirus are quarantined. The pandemic caused layoffs across the Gulf region as migrant workers without citizenship or permanent residency had to return to their home countries. (Karim/Sahib/AFP/Getty Images)

Trade unions are illegal in the country, and workers who unionize or strike can be deported. Advocacy groups such as the London-based International Campaign for Freedom in the United Arab Emirates have in recent years highlighted the plight of migrant construction workers, many of whom work in exploitative and hazardous conditions.

While U.A.E. wants to frame the recent reforms as in line with its image as a “liberal beacon in the Middle East,” it remains to be seen whether they will address the concerns of the more vulnerable members of the expat population, said Bessma Momani, senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont.

“They want to be seen as this model place of pluralism and openness and tolerance, but there’s a dark side to the Emirates when you look at how they treat foreign workers,” Momani said.

“The Western expats, in many ways, are part of the elite. Yes, it sounds great to them, but they’re not the most vulnerable of foreign workers.”

WATCH  | Changes in U.A.E. this year included normalization of diplomatic relations with Israel:  

A historic Middle East agreement has been signed at the White House, after U.S. President Donald Trump helped broker a deal for Israel to normalize relations with both Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. 1:58



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