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The UAE attempts to overhaul harsh criminal and financial laws

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now a look at some changes occurring in a small country that's often in the spotlight, the United Arab Emirates. It's been known at times for harsh legal punishments. Foreign couples have been jailed for a kiss in public. Businesspeople have faced prison for a bounced check. Citizens face restrictions on free speech. Well, now the UAE has overhauled some of its laws, promising big changes. And NPR's Ruth Sherlock is following this.

Ruth, tell us about what these new laws say.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Well, it's a drastic overhaul that applies to both foreigners and Emiratis. And this is a country where foreigners outnumber locals almost 9 to 1. So now unmarried couples can live together. Alcohol has been decriminalized. There are harsher punishments for sexual harassment and rape. There are new attempts to end so-called honor killings. And, Ari, there's more (laughter). Civil marriage is allowed not just under Islamic law. Having a child out of wedlock could get you jail time before. Now it's less likely to. Drug laws have been relaxed. And there's also a raft of new financial legislation. So for example, foreigners can own businesses without Emirati partners. I spoke with Ludmila Yamalova. She is a U.S. citizen and the managing partner of a UAE-based law firm. And she's been going over the new rules.

LUDMILA YAMALOVA: It truly feels like living in the thick of the history in the making. I have never seen such an extraordinary volume of progressive legislative amendments.

SHERLOCK: So some versions of these laws were introduced in late 2020, and others were announced last year and are being implemented this month.

SHAPIRO: Ruth, it sounds almost like a total cultural overhaul. Why is the UAE doing this now?

SHERLOCK: Well, look; you know, some of the new regulations are basically this reflection of the reality of the country now. So for example, alcohol is already widely available. But analysts say that this is also an attempt by the UAE to try to improve its image and make itself more attractive to foreigners. And that's because it's competing now with Saudi Arabia to be this international financial hub in the region. So for example, they've also done things like shift to a Monday-to-Friday working week as opposed to Sunday to Thursday. That's to fit in with global financial markets. Habib Al Mulla is a lawyer and has also held many government positions there. He says even if parts of Emirati society still remain very conservative, these progressive social reforms are necessary for the economy.

HABIB AL MULLA: I believe you can't have a country which is liberal from an economic perspective but not from a social perspective or vice versa. It's sort of flipped there right now (ph).

SHERLOCK: So he notes that the new laws are being brought in to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the country.

SHAPIRO: The UAE has been criticized for a record of human rights violations. Are these new laws going to leave that record in the past? Is this really a substantive change?

SHERLOCK: Well, analysts say, look; it may be years before we know the real effect of these laws. Some of the new legal code is open to lots of interpretation. And courts in more conservative parts of the UAE - for example, outside of the glitzy cities like Dubai - may be less keen to implement the more liberal aspects of these new regulations. Rights groups I've spoken with say it's too early to tell how helpful the new law - new employment laws could really be for migrants, who are often forced to do unsafe and low-paid work. And it's important to remember that the UAE remains a monarchy, where dissent isn't really allowed. Critics of the government continue to be jailed or forced to flee the country. And there isn't much sign that this overhaul would change that.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Ruth Sherlock.

Thank you very much.

SHERLOCK: Thank you very much.

[POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION:The audio of this story, as did an earlier web version, does not note that the changes concerning premarital sex and couples living together appear to apply only to heterosexual couples. Same-sex couples could still be subject to punishment.]

(SOUNDBITE OF KELPE'S "POLYMAR E") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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