The UAE takes steps towards modernization by decriminalizing alcohol and suicide

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Over the weekend, the oil-rich country announced it had decriminalized alcohol and suicide, and scrapped so-called “honor crime” provisions that gave men lighter sentences if they assaulted female relatives to protect a family’s reputation.

Official news reporting about the series of decrees states that the country has “lifted the criminalization of parts of the penal code that do not harm others” — a vaguely worded phrase that could signal the further repeal of more socially conservative rules.

The UAE has adopted an increasingly liberal approach to social freedoms in recent years, helping to attract expatriates to the country and retain those already living there. Foreigners (around 8 million people in a country of roughly 10 million) make up an overwhelming part of the UAE’s workforce.

When the UAE economy contracted in 2020 due to the effects of Covid-19 and dropping oil prices, it sought to entice expats to remain by rolling out retirement programs and easing the path to naturalization. Saturday’s reforms also allow expatriates to apply their home countries’ laws to inheritance issues.

“The decrees aim to solidify the UAE’s adherence to the importance of creating a legal environment that suits cultural diversity,” state news agency WAM wrote. “The state commits to building a competitive and safe social and economic environment.”

In recent years, socially conservative rules in the UAE have rarely been enforced. Still, the possibility of penalizing people for socially liberal behavior has loomed large in the minds of its inhabitants. And the formalization of reforms is a relief for many socially liberal residents.

It is unclear how the reforms will affect LGBTQ individuals in the country — homosexuality is typically criminalized by a vague law that bans “indecent assault” and is punishable by a year in prison — or if it will change attitudes towards frowned-upon practices such as public displays of affection.

And there is no sign that the country plans to loosen its stifling grip on political expression — widely criticized by international rights groups — nor substantially improve its rights record with regards to tens of thousands of migrant laborers.

To underscore that political reforms are nowhere on the horizon, the UAE decreed on Monday that any “disrespect” shown towards the country’s flag, or any state’s flag, carries a jail sentence of up to 25 years and a fine of 500,000 dirhams (around $137,000).

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That mix of laws seems to set the tone for the course the UAE seeks to chart.

Abu Dhabi wants acceptance from the international community. It has made strides in scientific progress by launching a mission to Mars and by taking on coronavirus vaccine trials. It has also parted ways with a 2002 Arab Peace Initiative by normalizing relations with Israel, spurning Arab and Muslim opinion, and winning the praise of the Western world.

And now it is making official that it plans to be a socially liberal Muslim-majority state. But it has shown no disposition to democratization, and seems intent to not even pay lip service to the idea.

In some ways, the UAE’s path has been similar to Saudi Arabia, where the kingdom’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman vociferously stamped out dissent while ushering in social and economic reform. His supporters argue that the prince’s iron fist has been essential to pulling Saudi Arabia out of its ultra-conservative past. But rights defenders in the kingdom say that rights abuses under the Crown Prince have been unprecedented, even for the country’s absolute monarchy.

Both countries have also imposed an embargo on former ally, Qatar, and entered a war in Yemen to crush Iran-backed Houthi rebels, which has helped spark a humanitarian crisis in the country.

The UAE has not suffered the same damage to its reputation as Saudi Arabia, because the crackdown on dissidents has been far more limited, and the population appears largely compliant with an apparently popular government. And Abu Dhabi has proven more savvy than Riyadh in billing its version of political governance to the Western world — and even to young Arabs who increasingly see it as a beacon of stability and progress, according to this year’s Arab Youth Survey.
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Abu Dhabi has even sought to leave a footprint on global Islam. On its state TV channels it has devoted airtime to progressive Islamic thinkers who reconcile Islam with personal freedoms. Over the last decade, the UAE’s social mores have become visibly more lax than the traditionally more liberal Arab states in the Levant.

And when a civilizational showdown happened last month between French President Emmanuel Macron, who called Islam a religion “in crisis,” and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who posed as a bulwark against Islamophobia, the UAE came down on Macron’s side. In an interview with German newspaper Die Welt, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash accused Erdogan of manipulating “a religious issue,” and said Macron’s remarks were misunderstood.

It was a remark that fits with the larger trajectory of a Muslim-majority country that has grown into a formidable regional power broker by molding a state religion into its outward-looking image, seeking to bridge divides between East and West. All the while it has employed a muscular set of policies that sparked an outcry from rights groups and issued scathing criticisms of Palestinians, Turks and Qataris, among other former Arab and Muslim friends of the Gulf state.

Whether the UAE succeeds with this formula remains to be seen, but it is in uncharted waters and has found itself at the heart of global issues. The international community will be keen to see where it goes to next.

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