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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 criminalising so-called "honour killings".

The broadening of personal freedoms reflects the changing profile of a country that has sought to bill itself as a skyscraper-studded destination for Western tourists, fortune-seekers and businesses despite its legal system based on a hard-line interpretation of Islamic law.

For the uninitiated, here are the reforms in Islamic law that the country has introduced:

Alcohol consumption

The changes include scrapping penalties for alcohol consumption, sales and possession for those of 21 years of age and over.

Previously, individuals needed a liquor license to purchase, transport or have alcohol in their homes.

The new rule would apparently allow Muslims who have been barred from obtaining licenses to drink alcoholic beverages freely.

Alchohol-related prosecutions are rare, but often individuals without a license would get penalised when held for a separate offence. Now that it has been decriminalised, such instances are not expected to occur. However, underage drinking is still a criminal offence in the country.

Live-in for unmarried couples

Another amendment allows for 'cohabitation of unmarried couples,' which has long been a crime in the UAE.

Authorities, especially in the more free-wheeling financial hub of Dubai, tend to look the other way when it comes to foreigners, but the threat of punishment still lingered for such behavior.

Punishment for honour crimes

The government also decided to get rid of laws protecting 'honour crimes,' a widely criticized tribal custom in which a male relative may evade prosecution for assaulting a woman seen as dishonoring a family.

The punishment for a crime committed to eradicating a woman's "shame", for promiscuity or disobeying religious and cultural strictures, will now be the same for any other kind of assault.

Divorce

In what comes as a major change, couples married in another country but willing to get a divorce in the UAE will be able to do so according to the laws of the country where the marriage took place and not Sharia Law by default, as it used to be earlier.

According to reports, earlier properties of divorced couples used to divided among the family members according to the Sharia Law. Howerver, now even the local courts have to abide by the law of the person's citizenship when dividing assets, unless there is a written will.

However, if the marriage occurred or the property was purchased in the UAE, the case will be administered according to the Islamic Sharia Law.

Suicide

Under a bizarre antiquated legal framework, suicide or attempted suicide in the UAE used to be a crime and a person who had survived a suicide attempt could be prosecuted.

However, now suicides have been decriminalised and authorities are supposed to provide mental health support to the victims/persons involved.

However, assisting a person to attempt suicide still remains a crime.

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In a country where expatriates outnumber citizens nearly nine to one, the amendments will permit foreigners to avoid Islamic Shariah courts on issues like marriage, divorce and inheritance.

The legal reforms were announced on state-run WAM news agency and detailed in state-linked newspaper The National.

The announcement also follows a historic US-brokered deal to normalise relations between the UAE and Israel, which is expected to bring an influx of Israeli tourists and investment.

The changes also reflect the efforts of the Emirates' rulers to keep pace with a rapidly changing society at home.

The reforms come as the UAE gets ready to host the high-stakes World Expo. The event is planned to bring a flurry of commercial activity and some 25 million visitors to the country, after it was pushed back a year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

(With agency inputs)

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