x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 12 December 2017

Understand the culture to avoid many legal pitfalls

If you want to stay out of legal trouble in the UAE, it's prudent to know a little about the culture in which the law is rooted.

Ignorance of the law is no excuse.

That's the standard line you can expect to hear in the UAE, or almost anywhere else, if you're caught doing something you naively presumed was legal but actually is not.

And ignorance of the law can be a real problem in a land of expatriates. But for people lacking knowledge of local customs and traditions, ignorance of the law can even be the norm.

Local media have reported that 72 per cent of expatriates living in the UAE lack basic knowledge of local mores.

That may be understandable, but, well, ignorance of the law is still no excuse.

So why are 50 per cent of expatriates reportedly unwilling to set aside time to learn about the local culture?

This kind of complacency has landed many expatriates in court, or left them facing social embarrassment and inconvenience.

As citizens or resident expatriates, we are all expected to know and obey the UAE's laws. But knowing all the law can be burdensome. At the federal level alone there are 2,000 crimes. Then there is the massive regulatory code of each emirate, and certain court rulings that affect the way some laws are applied.

Many newcomers to the UAE do, I understand, read one of the guides to business culture and etiquette in the Gulf, as a precaution against the pitfalls of cross-culture conflicts. Much of this information is about politeness, rather than law, although some of these readable books do address situations newcomers can face while doing business with Emiratis.

But how can you know what the law says? How much of all that law do you need to know?

Printed media and radio do inform people how to stay out of trouble. These days almost every Arabic-language radio station seems to air a live show in which lawyers discuss these matters. Some television stations are cautiously following suit. But Arabic is of little use to most expatriates.

Embassies, business councils and other groups are also active in giving presentations on the "dos and don'ts" of living in the UAE.

An Arabic-language computer application called E-Laws gives users full access to federal laws, including the penal code and criminal, civil, traffic and narcotics laws.

Lawyer friends who use the application say it is quite handy - but so far it is only in Arabic.

To judge by media reports, many in which expatriates have claimed ignorance of the law - but have not escaped its effects - involve laws enshrining certain cultural rules: kissing and touching in public, swearing, indecency, taking pictures of others without permission, disrespecting religions, sharing private space with the opposite sex, and of course wearing indecent clothing.

Consider the expatriate who loaned a friend some money, which the latter failed to pay back. When the lender filed a complaint, he himself was charged with lending at interest or "riba" - which is forbidden under Sharia. The lender was found guilty.

So how many of us know what to include and what to omit to make a loan Sharia-compliant?

It is no secret that the UAE's legislative process is not clearly structured, and the lack of a legislative agenda does not make the situation any better.

It is nearly impossible for the public to keep track of legal changes, except those published - usually in Arabic only. Translations are available only through online services not accessible to the public. There is no comprehensive guidebook for expatriates.

So how can anyone know what is a crime in the UAE?

When lawyers want to know why a given law has taken its particular shape - or why it exists at all - we go back to tradition, which is the source of so much legislation. The study of law is still to a large extent the study of history. Tradition is the basis of many legal principles.

So I believe that non-lawyers can best educate themselves on the laws of the UAE by doing a bit of reading through the country's history.

When you understand the historical context of the UAE's founding and development, you will know how Sharia came together with the French civil code.

This should make you more understanding and accepting of elements of our law code which now may seem to be unnecessary and even irrational hidden pitfalls.

Having an accurate notion of what is meant by a right, by a duty, by malice, intent, negligence, ownership, possession and so forth helps to clarify the law code, but is not sufficient. The traditional advice of elders to young men in our society is to seek the knowledge of the experts before beginning a journey.

Codes, precedents, history, culture, legal textbooks and the machinery of the justice system will all put you in contact with the law, but will not give you any understanding of its complexities and technicalities.

So until that guidebook - sure to be a bestseller whenever it does appear - is published, be sure to keep away from the unknown - and to consult a lawyer before you take the next step on your journey.


Diana Hamade is an Emirati lawyer and legal consultant. She is the founder of International Advocate Legal Services in Dubai