The President of the UAE, His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, recently approved the most extensive legal reforms in the country’s 50-year history. These reforms are far-reaching and include 40 new laws and updated versions of existing legislation covering areas of business, labour, family, personal status, crime, intellectual property and e-commerce. In this article we comment briefly on some of key areas of change.
The new law permits investors and entrepreneurs to establish and completely own onshore companies in all sectors, with the exception of a number of reserved “strategic activities”. This is a significant departure from the previous regime which required every business operating outside the free zones to be majority owned by a UAE national or company wholly owned by UAE nationals.
The new law further clarifies the responsibilities of the board of directors and executive management, and sets out administrative penalties imposed on those deemed to be in breach of its provisions.
The amendments to the law provide protection to three-dimensional trademarks and holograms. It also protects sound and smell trademarks, such as musical tones or scents associated with a company or by which its products are differentiated. Additionally, geographical names may be included in trademarks in instances where a product has a strong association with a particular place. A major change is the move to the multi class trademark filings, as previously, the UAE was a single filing class jurisdiction. Furthermore, it is no longer mandatory to register a trademark license on the official register for it to be enforceable. Previously, owners of a trademark were required to record the trademark license at the UAE Trademark Office in order for it to be enforceable
This is another significant reform that seeks to secure information confidentiality in certain circumstances. The provisions under the updated law apply to personal data processing and covers all types of personal data that may be electronically processed, whether within the UAE or outside it.
As part of the new legal reforms, no personal data may be processed without the owner’s consent. Exceptions to this are only permitted in cases where data processing is necessary to protect the public interest or where the data has been made available to all by an act of the data owner. Another exception is in the case of carrying out legal rights and procedures.
The new law defines the protocols for the processing of personal data and the general obligations of security and privacy. It also defines the circumstances in which the owner of the data has the right to request a correction of any inaccuracies or restrict or stop the processing of personal data. The law sets out the requirements for any cross-border transfer and sharing of personal data for processing purposes.
Under the new law, digital signatures have the same significance as handwritten signatures. The aim of this law is to simplify an array of civil processes such as the buying, leasing and selling of property.
The new cyber laws include additional security against fake news, enabling strict penalties to be imposed on persons who are party to spreading misleading or fake information. Serious legal consequences await persons who indulge in spreading fake news through online platforms and networks. The Court has been granted the power to confiscate devices, software, content and any other such equipment used in cybercrime.
The new law decriminalises consensual relationships outside marriage and provides an express acknowledgement of the status of a child conceived out of wedlock. The parents of any child born outside marriage will be required either to marry or to agree responsibility for the child, singly or jointly. Failure to comply with these requirements will be considered a criminal offence and the parents will be liable for a two-year prison term.
The existing criminal laws have been rewritten and, in some cases, new legislation has been introduced.
Alcohol consumption is now permitted in authorised areas without an alcohol license being required. However, it is to be noted that under the new law there is still a prohibition on the consumption of alcohol in public spaces or at unlicensed locations or outlets. Furthermore, the sale to, or inducement to consume alcohol by, any individual under the age of 21 is still punishable by law. Other major changes to the country’s crime and punishment laws are covered below.
One of the new provisions introduced by the Crime and Punishment Law relates to premediated murder and applies to any person who commits or participates in a premediated murder that occurs against a citizen of the United Arab Emirates, even if such a crime takes place outside the UAE. Additionally, the UAE has revoked laws that allowed judges to issue merciful sentences for honour crimes. Honour killings will now be treated by courts in the same way as other murder cases.
The new law raises the juvenile age limit from 14 to 18 years old. Therefore, victims of rape and sexual molestation or consensual sex under 18 years of age are classified as minors. The new law differentiates between penalties of life imprisonment and death, the latter being imposed in four specific cases. These are:
The new provisions in the law relating to indecent assault include imprisonment and a fine of AED 10,000 irrespective of the victim’s gender. If the assault includes threats, violence and use of force, the penalty shall be extended to a jail term of 10 to 20 years. Furthermore, if the victim is aged 18 or under, disabled or otherwise rendered in a condition unable to offer resistance, the prison term will be no less than 10 years. This more severe penalty shall also apply in instances where the assault takes place within a place of work, study, shelter or care. Previously, in instances of indecent assault, the punishment was imprisonment for a period not exceeding one year and a fine not exceeding AED 10,000.
Consensual extra-marital intercourse
Consensual extra-marital intercourse is punishable by imprisonment for a period of no less than 6 months. However, a criminal case can only be instituted on the basis of a complaint from the husband or guardian. It would appear therefore that a wife cannot raise such a case in the event of the infidelity of the husband.
These reforms depict the ways in which the UAE is updating its legal system to align with international standards and to reassure foreign communities of their importance and contribution to the state. The raft of new laws and legislative amendments came during the ‘Year of the 50th’ and are intended to keep pace with the developmental achievements of the UAE and reflect the country’s future aspirations.