UAE announces relaxing of Islamic laws for personal freedoms

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In this April 6, 2020, file photo, a lone taxi cab drives over a highway in front of the Dubai skyline. The United Arab Emirates announced on Saturday a major overhaul of the countrys Islamic personal laws, allowing unmarried couples to cohabitate, loosening alcohol restrictions and criminalizing so-called honor killings. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrel, File)

DUBAI – The United Arab Emirates announced on Saturday a major overhaul of the country’s Islamic personal laws, allowing unmarried couples to cohabitate, loosening alcohol restrictions and criminalizing so-called “honor killings.”

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

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 U.S.-brokered deal to normalize 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 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.