On 7 November 2021, a new law relating to the personal status of non-Muslims in Abu Dhabi was issued by His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
This newly issued law covers essential personal status matters and comprises 20 articles divided into 5 chapters covering topics such as civil marriage, divorce, joint custody of children, inheritance and proof of paternity for non-Muslims.
This article aims to provide a brief summary of this new law.
Civil marriage for non-Muslims is regulated by Chapter 1 of the new law. In accordance with this Chapter, non-Muslims are able to enter into a marital union with the consent of both parties. Previously, it was mandatory to obtain the consent of the woman’s family.
Chapter 2 relates to divorce and provides that there is no longer a need to justify an application for divorce by proving harm caused by the other party. A desire to separate and terminate the marriage by either party will suffice. Additionally, couples are no longer required to go through compulsory mediation sessions, so the divorce may now be granted without the need to attend at the family guidance department as a preliminary stage.
Custody of the child after divorce is covered under Chapter 3 of the new law. It provides that custody shall be shared equally by the father and the mother after divorce for the benefit of the mental health of the child and to reduce the negative effects of divorce on children. In the case that any differences arise between the parents in regard to any matters relating to child custody, either parent may apply to the court to object and request the Court’s intervention. This is a significant change to the preceding law which automatically gave a mother custody until the child reached the age of 11 (in the case of a son) or 13 (in the case of a daughter). The father was entitled to claim custody once the child reached those respective ages.
Chapter 4 of the new personal status law relates to inheritance and the registration of wills for non-Muslims. Prior to the new law, sons were entitled to a larger share of the inheritance than daughters. The new law, however, provides non-Muslims with a right to create a will under which their estate can pass to whoever they wish. If the spouse dies intestate, half the estate shall automatically pass to the surviving spouse and the other half shall be divided equally among the children, without distinction between sons and daughters.
The new law covers proof of paternity under Chapter 5. According to the law, proof of paternity for non-Muslims shall be based on marriage.
In addition to the law, a new court will be set up in Abu Dhabi to handle all non-Muslim family matters. This court will operate in English as well as Arabic.
The new personal status law was introduced with the aim of modernising the legal system as it pertains to non-Muslims and ensuring that the rights of non-Muslims are excluded from the application of Sharia. It follows the changes that were made to the law in the previous year, in November 2020, when the federal UAE authorities introduced a number of changes, including the decriminalisation of premarital sexual relations and alcohol consumption, and cancelling provisions for leniency when dealing with “honour killings”.
It is hoped that these reforms, along with related measures such as the introduction of longer-term visas, will make the Gulf state more attractive for foreign investment, tourism and long-term residency.