(CNN)The United Arab Emirates has introduced a slew of reforms on personal status and penal laws as part of a years-long bid to modernize the Gulf state and promote a progressive brand of Islam.
The UAE takes steps towards modernization by decriminalizing alcohol and suicide
Over the weekend, the oil-rich country announced it had decriminalized alcohol and suicide, and scrapped so-called "honor crime" provisions that gave men lighter sentences if they assaulted female relatives to protect a family's reputation.
Official news reporting about the series of decrees states that the country has "lifted the criminalization of parts of the penal code that do not harm others" -- a vaguely worded phrase that could signal the further repeal of more socially conservative rules.
The UAE has adopted an increasingly liberal approach to social freedoms in recent years, helping to attract expatriates to the country and retain those already living there. Foreigners (around 8 million people in a country of roughly 10 million) make up an overwhelming part of the UAE's workforce.
When the UAE economy contracted in 2020 due to the effects of Covid-19 and dropping oil prices, it sought to entice expats to remain by rolling out retirement programs and easing the path to naturalization. Saturday's reforms also allow expatriates to apply their home countries' laws to inheritance issues.
"The decrees aim to solidify the UAE's adherence to the importance of creating a legal environment that suits cultural diversity," state news agency WAM wrote. "The state commits to building a competitive and safe social and economic environment."
In recent years, socially conservative rules in the UAE have rarely been enforced. Still, the possibility of penalizing people for socially liberal behavior has loomed large in the minds of its inhabitants. And the formalization of reforms is a relief for many socially liberal residents.
It is unclear how the reforms will affect LGBTQ individuals in the country -- homosexuality is typically criminalized by a vague law that bans "indecent assault" and is punishable by a year in prison -- or if it will change attitudes towards frowned-upon practices such as public displays of affection.
And there is no sign that the country plans to loosen its stifling grip on political expression -- widely criticized by international rights groups -- nor substantially improve its rights record with regards to tens of thousands of migrant laborers.
To underscore that political reforms are nowhere on the horizon, the UAE decreed on Monday that any "disrespect" shown towards the country's flag, or any state's flag, carries a jail sentence of up to 25 years and a fine of 500,000 dirhams (around $137,000).