The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has long been a popular destination for workers from across the world – it is reported 88 per cent of the country’s population are expatriates and immigrants.
Teachers are a major part of this workforce – occupying key roles in the scores of international schools that are based in the country.
However, some teachers considering a career in Dubai, for example, may have been put off by its strict Islamic laws, which have meant that common Western practices – such as public affection and the cohabitation of unmarried couples – are illegal in the country.
But in November, the UAE announced a major overhaul of the country’s stringent laws and regulations.
Perhaps the most notable change towards a ‘Westernisation’ of the UAE was the announcement by the government that it will allow for the “cohabitation of unmarried couples”.
This change, first reported by the state-run Emirates News Agency, means that living with a partner if you are not married to them is no longer illegal in the UAE.
Another big change in the loosening of restrictions includes the scrapping of penalties for alcohol consumption, sales and possession for those aged 21 and over.
Although liquor and beer is widely available in bars and clubs in the UAE's luxuriant coastal cities, individuals have long required a government-issued license to purchase, transport or have alcohol in their homes.
Other changes include the introduction of new laws that allow non-Emiratis to have their personal affairs dealt with according to the law of their home country and number of amendments seeking to protect the rights of women.
Drewery Dyke, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Centre (FPC) who works on human rights issues in the Gulf, including in the UAE, tells Tes that the changes appear to be a clear push to make the region even more attractive to outside investment and international workers.
“The changes to civil and penal practices announced in the UAE in November 2020 – addressing inheritance, cohabitation, the treatment of self-harm and the consumption of alcohol – appear to promise a more attractive working environment to a new generation of western migrant workers.”
Radha Sterling, a UEA legal expert who founded London-based Detained in Dubai in 2008, agrees. “The UAE is driving forward efforts to attract expats and investors to the country,” she tells Tes.
“Decriminalising sex outside marriage makes it safer for couples to live together and reduces the risk of sex-related charges.”
For international schools, these changes will likely make the nation even more attractive to teachers considering a job in the region, as Asa Firth, headteacher at Jumeirah English Speaking School (JESS) in Dubai, notes.
“With Covid restrictions in the UK at their highest, alongside the recent overhaul of UAE personal and family laws, the pull for teachers to come to the UAE as a destination of choice is surely only going to be stronger,” he says.
“The UAE has successfully transformed the country and its reputation in the past 10-15 years into a progressive hub of business, tourism and luxury. However, the UAE laws, although many are relaxed, in my experience have always been perceived differently from outsiders looking in.”
He says this will particularly be the case around the new rules on alcohol – which was never completely banned in the nation, despite what some may think.
“The decriminalisation of alcohol is going to be the one that gets the headlines. The perception that you can't drink alcohol in Dubai, has always been a misperception. It's available – it has just been monitored and regulated sensibly. But by decriminalising it, they have now dispelled the misperception that many UK residents have.”
Laura, a teacher already living and working in the UAE, has seen immediately how these changes have started to change perceptions among her friends
“I often found a lot of my friends had misconceptions about life in the UAE but these changes to the law have encouraged those that have never visited to finally get their holiday dates in the diary.”
Perhaps more notable, she adds that the changes are making fellow teachers outside the country think again about moving.
“Friends who had previously been reluctant to consider a move to Dubai due to cohabiting [restrictions] are now messaging me to ask when the new changes will come into place,” she says.
Ian Thurston, head of secondary at the Dar Al Marefa Private School in Dubai, certainly expects there to be a recruitment uptick from this change.
“Now it is not illegal to live with an unmarried partner, meaning younger unmarried couples are likely to be more willing to make the move.”
Mr Firth says this could help avoid the frustration – on both sides – of a hire not working out owing to a teacher or teachers not being married – or worse, forcing teachers into rushed marriages.
“I know of teaching couples who have wanted to come to the UAE for the lifestyle, the tax-free salary and the chance to work in the amazing schools, but have withdrawn after doing some research, due to the restrictions on living together without being married.
“I have also known couples who have been offered jobs in the UAE and have married the summer before they come out, just to be safe. Some worked out, some didn’t!”
For married couples or families, there are also positives to the new law changes, around things such as inheritance and divorce – not exactly upbeat topics, but part of the practicalities of moving abroad many will investigate.
“In the event of your death, your will is now applied as per the rules of your home nation, rather than Sharia law. And similarly, divorce and separation can be dealt with according to the husband's nationality at the time of marriage,” says Mr Thurston.
“There were a lot of reasons to move to the UAE previously – fantastic weather, gorgeous beaches and good wages – but now some of the barriers that deterred people from making the move have been removed, meaning people of a variety of ages and from a variety of different circumstances are likely to feel more comfortable living in the UAE.”
A step in the right direction
This does not mean everything is perfect, of course.
Both Mr Dyke and Ms Sterling note many laws remain that are problematic – such as around academic freedom for higher education academics – and urge those in the country to be mindful of cultural sensitivities.
However, for teachers in the region, the changes should be seen as another positive that is welcomed by both those considering a career in the nation – and those already there.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about the UAE but it is a very safe place to live,” says Kate Jones, head of history at The British School Al Khubairat, Abu Dhabi.
“Expats do need an awareness of the laws and to be culturally sensitive but the new laws introduced have been welcomed and show a new direction the country is taking embracing all of the different citizens that reside here.”
Laura is equally positive: “This ease of restrictions has offered the expat community reassurance that our Western lifestyle is embraced by the country and, while we maintain respect for the Muslim culture, we are now able to live here with a greater sense of freedom.”
Carly Page is a freelance writer