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Understanding the Limits: UAE's Alcohol Decriminalization

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Staff Writer, TLR

Published on July 14, 2023, 17:41:00


alcohol, UAE, decriminalization

Different countries' laws are influenced by their respective cultures, traditions, and conventions. What if a country breaks free from the constraints imposed by centuries of custom and religious law? Is it permissible to replicate and move in the same direction as modernism when our ancient religious books are condemned?

As that of an Islamic country in the Middle East, The United Arab Emirates (hence referred to as UAE) inherits far too much of its legislation from its own federal constitution, which is profoundly founded in Islamic law. However, the UAE has announced a slew of new civil and criminal legislation, including that of the decriminalisation of alcohol intake and the enforcement of country-of-origin laws for divorce.

This accentuates us the need of recognising that, similar to how different countries derive their legal systems from various origins, they have radically diverse legal reactions when dealing with illicit substances like alcohol.


Since its formation in 1971, the UAE has seen unprecedented changes in every walk of society. Ethnic people endured difficulties as a result of the sudden switch from poverty to opulence, which pushed them to evolve psychologically. National workforce, as well as globalization and westernization, altered its tradition, culture, and institutional structures.

As previously stated, the UAE is governed by Islamic law and tries level best to adhere to it. Same is endorsed by Section 2 of Article 7 of their constitution. Alcohol consumption is prohibited under Islamic law. For Islamic law, every intoxicant is khamr (an Arabic word for intoxication), and every khamr is forbidden. This long-standing law recently stands amended.

This is more of a requirement of modern realities. Dubai and Abu Dhabi both dominates by international trade which includes the concentration of foreign visitors, who bring with them demands (to intake alcohol) as well as skills and experience, forcing the UAE to relax their rigorous adherence to Islamic rule and get liberal to consumption of alcohol.

Severity attached with other drugs

Though the ease with which alcohol can be used appeals to the UAE's liberal viewpoint, the country's drug laws and policies have a high standing reputation due to the severity attached to the sanctions they entail. The instance of British national case of Cat Le-Huy, as reported by BBC News, demonstrates this. He was eventually released free, but only after a gruelling and time-consuming procedure.

In an interview a few years ago, one judge from the UAE, Mahmoud Fahmi, said, "The UAE has a particular penal code covering drug crimes, and it is ranked one of the strongest penal laws in the Middle East. Suspects caught with any amount of narcotics [even little amounts] and prosecuted with possessing drugs for personal use might face a sentence of four to fifteen years in prison."

This raises an intriguing contradiction or paradox in the UAE legal system about alcohol liberalisation and legalisation.

Analysis for parallel legal responses of other countries to illicit substances 

Firstly, taking comparison of UAE with its akin country the Saudi Arabia, which when it comes to follow Islamic law sits similar to that of UAE. However, there is now a disparity on the issue of alcohol consumption. Whereas the Saudi Arabia finds the complete prohibition of alcohol consumption domestically justified as per the Islamic law, the UAE has taken a more liberal approach and moved away from the old strict law criminalising alcohol consumption.

With all its severity, the UAE prescribes for mandatory sentence for drugs relating offenses, still it is not the extremist one. The Singapore makes it a step further and go ahead to mandate death sentence for offences relating to illicit substances. As per an Amnesty International report among 400 death sentences (executed) in Singapore, since 1999, much of them were hanged for Drug relating offences. In Singapore, the law relating to drugs is governed by Misuse of Drugs Act.

Though the two jurisdictions well-nigh match in severity have different origins. Singapore, following British colonial heritage, drive laws from its Constitution as it happens in Common Law system. The authoritarian form in Singapore justifies such sanctions on this ground: “To walk the streets with reasonable safety is the most basic of civil liberties.”

Now presenting an altogether different approach, the Netherlands made the use of soft drugs, such as marijuana, legal which made up most of drugs relating cases in UAE and Singapore. The drug law there is governed by enactment of 1976, to which Ed Leuw calls “a compromise between outright prohibition and attempted normalization and social integration of drug use”.

Now, what is it about the Netherlands that makes it so forgiving toward something for which the UAE and Singapore have long prison sentences and death sentences, among the worst penalties? It is nothing more than the way it maintains and drives its laws. The Netherlands possesses a constitutional monarchy. Ergo, the Constitution halts for judicial review of parliamentary acts, empowering parliament to interpret the constitution in any way it deems fit, and make laws which foots higher in society than that to the constitution. The Liberation to drugs law is further backed up by strict bindingness of European Convention on Human Rights on the Netherlands.


To sum up, neither sort of rule, one that is very stringent nor the other that is more tolerant, can be called to be up to par. The UAE exemplifies the importance of steering away from draconian religious sanctions toward a more modernised and justifiable approach, demonstrating that we should not stick to tradition but rather evolve with the times.

Analogously to legitimising a restrictive use of alcohol, the UAE and Singapore need to be less onerous and stringent when it comes to the punishment attached to drug offences, whereas the Netherlands, which has very lenient laws, needs to characterise and regulate the substance abuse, which in the end targets the person who uses or consumes them.


This article was contributed by Jatin Karela, Law Student - NLUJ