Divorce in the UAE: The Expatriate Experience

4th June 2020 Family Law

I have been travelling to the UAE and Gulf for a number of years to support clients, make friends and learn.

My last trip ended suddenly in March when the hotel bar was closed, for the duration, and returning on a flight with fellow passengers armed with bacterial gel, surgical gloves and masks, I learned how difficult it can be at times to leave the region; after a fashion I was having an expatriate experience.

Any number of reasons draw the expatriate to the UAE, money, love and climate. Getting in can be easy but for some, little thought is given to leaving.

I am a family lawyer; a divorce lawyer, working out of London, supporting and representing clients across the Middle East who either want or do not want the laws of England and Wales to apply to them.

My experience is that on arrival, few expatriates have any idea that, as far as their marriage, matrimonial wealth and children are concerned, the laws of the UAE are completely different and that divorcing, particularly where there are children, can be complex and therefore expensive.

Here are some very simple guidelines:

  • Men and women cannot live together unless that they are married.
  • Children born out of marriage can never be the subject of local family law proceedings and in theory are evidence of a criminal offence having been committed.
  • Any married couple moving to the UAE are “bonkers” if they do not give thought to how they would separate. Pre or Post Nuptial Agreements fall in to the category of “Never leave home without one”
  • Children cannot leave the UAE at the end of a marriage without the agreement of their father. If there is no agreement then there is, it is said, a legal remedy through the local courts for the mother to ask permission to leave with the children, but I have never come across a mother obtaining permission to permanently relocate where the children's father objects.
  • Travel bans are available to prevent children from leaving the country.
  • If a marriage ends in a divorce in the UAE, the local courts will only deal with assets in the UAE. The mother, as a mother, will receive (subject to the available resources) a generous allowance through the courts for the period that her children are dependent on her and have not moved to live with their father (a possibility at 11 and 13 respectively).
  • Just because you live in the UAE does not mean you are prevented from divorcing in England or Wales, as, at the very least, most UK nationals, through their domicile, will have a choice.
  • A divorce in the England and Wales is likely to be to the advantage of the economically weaker spouse.
  • If you live in the UAE, and even if your children were born there, British nationals who are divorcing in England, can in some circumstances ask the courts in England to make decisions about their children.
  • Enforcing a decision of the divorce courts of England in the UAE is possible in theory but there are few examples of success and some recent significant failures. Not exactly sporting, but an approach, which can work against a spouse with a business or family reason to come to the UK, is “Playing the man/women and not the ball”, an enforcement against the person (with the threat of prison in the UK) and not directly against their overseas assets.
  • Divorce Part 2; the chance for a second “bite of the cherry” after an overseas divorce is a unique feature of English family law. Actually, Part III of the MFPA 1984 is a route frequently used by those dissatisfied with the financial outcome of their divorce in the UAE and a factor to take into account when making a decision to divorce in the UAE.
  • Post-divorce, a dependent spouse will eventually need to find an independent entitlement to a visa to reside in the UAE, or be forced to leave the country.

Michael Rowlands, a Fellow of the International Academy of Family Lawyers, travels frequently to the UAE and represents clients in London from across the Gulf.

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