Constant Flux – How Changes Shape the Skyline and Experience of Living in the UAE

Nothing stands as a stronger sign of change than when a building or group of buildings are razed to the ground to make space for redevelopment. I’ve driven past Mina Plaza Towers many times on my way to my favourite art space in Abu Dhabi, Warehouse 421, or to buy some dates, while it was a fixed part of the view from our apartment in Abu Dhabi. Construction on it began around 2008, when Malaysia’s Zelan Holdings signed a contract with its developer Meena Holdings to build it. After the project was stopped and started during the next couple of years over disputes of non-payment for work done, this 980 million dirham project ground to a final halt at the end of 2015.

At 8am on Friday, 27 November 2020, it took a mere 10 seconds for the 4 towers (a total of 144 floors combined) to disappear with a bang, lacing the air with the smell of cordite, the explosive that was used in the 18,000 holes that were drilled to accomplish a feat that made it into the record books and took 18 months of planning.

This physical change to the skyline of Abu Dhabi followed in the wake of changes to the legal system, which came into effect at the beginning of November. These changes will have a huge impact on the quality of life of the expat population of the UAE, but I have to admit that I’m glad one of these changes only came into effect almost a decade after Michael and I got married.

When Michael decided to act on an opportunity to work in the UAE over ten years ago, our lives changed forever. Far away from home, and often lonely, the months dragged by, and he urged (begged) me to visit him. I refused on the premise that we weren’t married, and that it was against the law to live together if not. One couldn’t even share an apartment as unrelated flatmates, even if one wasn’t in a romantic relationship. He counteracted with the fact that no one would know, that there were a lot of people doing it anyway, and that if I wanted, he would rent me a seperate hotel room. I refused.

When he asked me to marry him six moths after we moved in together, I did what any bride-to-be does – I started to plan the wedding. A wedding, which I should add he insisted on, as I was keen to elope. When his list of requirements became a tangled mess to negotioate, I thought it would be a good idea to start with something that would be easy to compromise on. Something a man surely has no preference to, and I couldn’t care less about. A wedding cake. I searched for ideas and photos, and eventually found some I could work with. When I presented them to him, all he said was “I’ve always wanted a seven tiered wedding cake”. No, it was no joke. He was serious. At that point all negotiations ended, and I gave up. I never wanted a wedding anyway, I just wanted to get married.

So by the time he moved to the UAE, we’d been engaged for more than three years, and when, six months after he left, he came for a visit, he declared with some gusto: “We should start planning our wedding”. I agreed, as there was no way I would move to the UAE without a marriage certificate. This time we more easily compromised. It would be a small, intimate affair in the bush, surrounded only by our closest family and friends, as our chosen venue, a lodge where we spent many happy days during previous visits, was small. And because everyone had to travel far, we decided to make a weekend out of it. “No wedding cake,” I declared. He smiled and nodded.

So I guess one can say with a fair amount of certainty that I have the UAE law that prohibited cohabitation to thank for my marriage. That law has now changed, and for the first time it is legal for unmarried couples to live together.

Alcohol consumption (in private or licenced establishments, not in public) is no longer a legal offence without a licence, as long as you are 21 years old. Although one previously needed to be in possession of a licence to buy and consume alcohol, it was a law that was only really enforced when arrested for another offence.

Suicide and attempted suicide were decriminalised, while “good Samaritans” will no longer be held liable if the person they help dies of their injuries, when they intervene by administering CPR or first aid.

The most important and far reaching change is perhaps the one relating to the personal affairs of non-Emiratis. Divorce and inheritance will now be dealt with in accordance with the laws of the country that the expats hail from, instead of Sharia or Islamic law. The only exception to this is property owned in the UAE, which will still fall under UAE law.

With about 80 percent of the population being non-Emirati, these changes are huge in a country which is doing its best to preserve its culture, heritage, and social values, while at the same time welcomes guest workers, investors, and tourists from over 200 different nationalities with different values, religions, and cultures.

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Note: My sister-in-law decided that one cannot have a wedding without a cake, so she secretly ordered some cupcakes, while her daughter baked a giant one especially for Michael.

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