The United Arab Emirates has decriminalised the consumption of alcohol and lifted the ban on unmarried couples living together.
Recently announced reforms to personal laws mean that alcohol consumption is no longer a criminal offence, and anyone who drinks or is in possession of alcohol or sells alcoholic beverages in authorised areas without an alcohol licence will not face penalties.
A person still must be at least 21 years old to drink legally in the UAE and anyone caught selling alcohol to someone deemed under age will be punished.
Although alcohol is available for sale in restaurants and bars in Emirati cities, individuals have up to now needed a licence to buy booze or keep it in their homes. The new laws would apparently allow Muslims, who have not been able to get licences, to drink alcoholic beverages freely.
And for the first time the law will allow for the legal cohabitation of unmarried couples. Until now, it is has been illegal for an unmarried couple, or even unrelated flatmates, to share a home in the Emirates.
In recent years, the authorities have rarely targeted or prosecuted anyone found in breach of this, but the new law will ensure people feel they are on the right side of the law when they move to the country.
The reforms to personal laws also mean that foreigners living in the Gulf state will now be able to follow their home country’s laws on divorce and inheritance, rather than using UAE legislation based on Islamic religious law.
Emirati judges have until now been allowed to hand down lighter sentences when a woman was attacked or killed by a relative because she has acted in a way he considers to have affected the family reputation, or “honour.” That can include eloping or fraternising with men not related to them.
The new laws will also include tougher punishments for men who subject women to harassment of any kind, the National newspaper reported.
The reports did not mention other behaviour outlawed by Emirati law, which has previously landed foreigners in trouble, including homosexual relationships, cross-dressing and public displays of affection.
The legal reforms aim to “consolidate the UAE’s principles of tolerance,” state-run WAM news agency reported, as it adapts to changing norms at home and prepares to host the World Expo next year.
The announcement also follows a U.S.-brokered deal to normalise relations between the UAE and Israel, which is expected to bring an influx of Israeli tourists and investment.
The state-run National newspaper said: “The laws, effective immediately, reflect progressive measures to improve living standards and for the UAE to continue to be a destination for foreign direct investment and people from around the world.”