COVID-19 v. Expo2020: The UAE’s Legal Renaissance?

By Emilio Giuliani III.

For nearly a decade, Expo2020 has been the anticipated event in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Since 2013, billboards at Dubai International Airport, the world’s busiest international airport, have welcomed tourists to a global get-together years in the making. As a UAE resident for half a decade, during this period I was inundated with references in my professional life from Expo-themed project proposals to the inclusion of the Expo2020 logo in every email signature. Despite the extensive preparation, the unprecedented pandemic threw a tremendous wrench into the World Expo that has surprisingly accelerated sweeping legal changes across the country.

Shifting Sands for the Future

For well over a decade, the UAE has been strategically investing its oil profits to diversify and modernize its economy. As a result, the Gulf monarchy looked to Expo2020 as a world-revealing opportunity to showcase national progress, not unlike China’s approach to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The planning and goals reflect an attempt to revive the significance of the great expositions of the World Expos of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The UAE leadership’s technological and environmental goals were highly ambitious.

Nonetheless, the economic impact of COVID-19 affected the Emirates more profoundly than it did many other countries. It’s hard to imagine a worse existential problem to an economy transitioning from oil and gas to tourism and air travel than a global pandemic. Originally scheduled to start in October 2020, Expo2020 was pushed back a full year and will run from October 2021 until March 2022. Despite the significant delay, the branding of Expo2020 remains unchanged.

The postponement came with high costs, including job losses and logistical construction hurdles. As a result, the UAE has tried to innovate and adapt its way through these obstacles with surprising implications.

COVID’s Silver Lining: Progressive Legal Change?

One of these implications includes the UAE’s shift away from Islamic legal codes and the expansion of laws that appeal to Westerners. Sentences for honor killings have been eliminated and penalties on sexual harassment have been increased. Criminal law reform has included expanded rights for suspects, including the implementation of a Miranda rights-type provision upon arrest and codifying an assumption of innocence. The Emirates now recognizes divorce and inheritance laws of the non-citizen’s country, providing an alternative to Islamic principles governing family law. Additionally, alcohol, attempting suicide, and cohabitation of unmarried men and women have been decriminalized.

Measures enacted to protect against gender-based discrimination in the workplace and to increase the representation of women in the Federal National Council, the country’s highest legislative body, preceded the pandemic. However, the government has noted these changes are but stepping stones to further gender equality in the legal system. Furthermore, foreigners now have the opportunity to fully own a company without the need for local Emirati shareholders. Previously, the government limited full foreign ownership to specially designated free zones, concentrating and limiting outside businesses. This shift will further open more economic opportunities for investment from abroad and entice new corporations to operate across the UAE.

The Emirates adopted a blended legal system upon gaining independence in 1971, combining a civil law basis with principles of Islamic Sharia law. The legal shifts outlined above represent significant steps away from Sharia law and toward a more rule of law-based social and economic environment. It is difficult to evaluate how effective such measures will be in attracting new foreign residents, or at least in retaining existing ones, given the dynamic changes brought upon by COVID, but on a broad scale the UAE is moving closer to democratic international norms.

The UAE Today and Tomorrow

Outside of the legal arena, the Emirates normalized relations with Israel in 2020 and UAE-Qatar relations have significantly thawed from the previous political impasse. Furthermore, as of September 2021, the UAE boasts the world’s highest vaccination rate. While Arizona has fully vaccinated 48% of its population and 57% of people in the state have received at least one dose, the UAE reports that 76% of its people are fully vaccinated and a total of 87% have received at least one shot.

The UAE is a dynamic country with transient professionals from all corners of the globe and an eye towards the future. The recent changes may be reflective of the start of a legal renaissance, or it could be a set of stop-gap measures necessitated by the pandemic;only time will tell. In the meantime, this at least gives everyone more of a chance to visit Expo2020 in Dubai, and there’s still plenty of time to buy tickets. As of September 2021, for a week-long trip in mid-October, you could grab a roundtrip flight from Sky Harbor to Dubai International Airport for under $900.

Emirates Airbus A380 with Expo2020 Logo by Ganes Panneer, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0