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Pandemic, Competition With Saudi Arabia Drive Change in UAE
Starz Play co-founder and CEO Maaz Sheikh poses in his office in Dubai on April 23, 2019. (Giuseppe Cacace/AFP via Getty Images)

Pandemic, Competition With Saudi Arabia Drive Change in UAE

‘The generation is enjoying freedoms their parents could not have dreamt of,’ analyst says

[Dubai] Rose from Eastern Europe and Ahmad from North Africa, both airline cabin crew, had been living together in Dubai for two years. In mid-March 2020, under COVID lockdown in the United Arab Emirates, Rose learned she was pregnant.

There were no flights in or out of the UAE so she could not go home to give birth. She also could not deliver her baby in the UAE as she was not married to her partner, meaning they could both end up in jail.

Instead, the couple opted to wed, a long process as she needed the approval of her father who was in a different country. They eventually married in Dubai in July, when she was still pregnant.

“I would have still married the man even if the laws were different; my child needs a father,” she says.

Rose and Ahmad were not the only couple living together outside marriage in the UAE. In fact, many people share accommodations there, even if they are not in a relationship. However, there was always the risk of prosecution.

“I mean, I understand the local traditions, but I am not local so don’t judge me by your rules,” Rose says.

The UAE recently decriminalized consensual relationships outside marriage and said that any child conceived as a result of such a partnership was to be registered. However, the news evoked no great reaction in Dubai, as people of different genders have been living together in the same apartments for decades.

Dubai, a cosmopolitan city, has attracted millions of people from across the world. The city and the country overall maintained their traditions for decades, until the COVID-19 pandemic hit and a series of reforms, social and economic, were announced.

On Sunday, the UAE’s Media Regulatory Office announced that it will no longer censor R-rated scenes in films, allowing the international (uncut) versions to be shown in theaters; however, it will institute a new rating for movies classified for audiences aged over 21.

Maaz Sheikh, the CEO and co-founder of Dubai-based streaming website StarzPlay, wrote on his LinkedIn account that this change “is a huge milestone for local entertainment. It’s a progressive move that will not only bring even more foreign movies into the region but will also encourage local Arabic content production and storytelling, and even inspire a new generation of homegrown filmmakers from the UAE.”

The UAE also recently changed the weekend for federal government offices to be Saturday and Sunday, with Friday a half-day off, instead of Friday and Saturday only. Some private sector companies followed. Many hailed the move for bringing the UAE closer to the international community.

“I think it’s all to accommodate more people,” says Amna, a Pakistani who lived in Dubai with her Lebanese now-husband outside marriage for five years. They decided to get married for the sake of her family. However, the couple had lived comfortably for years, telling people in their building that they were married.

“I was really never scared but some people are closed-minded,” she says.

The country has also changed the face of its foreign policy. Under its “50-year strategy” for development, the UAE Centennial 2071 plan, it decided to become friendlier with its neighbors. Last year, it acknowledged Israel as a country and opened economic, political, and cultural ties.

In 2021, the UAE cleared a path for better relations with Qatar and Turkey and even engaged in discussions with Iran. These changes are seen by some as designed to ensure that the UAE has an edge over its neighbors in the Gulf Cooperation Council, mainly Saudi Arabia which recently announced that its government would only work with firms that have their regional headquarters in the kingdom, a move seen as designed to get companies to move out of Dubai.

“The UAE definitely no longer enjoys an indisputable edge in social freedoms in the Gulf, as it once did,” says Vaarsha Koduvayur, a senior research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“It is now competing with Saudi Arabia as the kingdom attempts to modernize, shedding its ultra-conservative image in a bid to shake up its economy. Though it is driven by economic competition and worries, this competition could certainly be a good thing, allowing this generation to enjoy freedoms their grandparents or even parents could not have dreamt of,” Koduvayur says.

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