On 7 November 2020, the UAE government announced wide-sweeping reforms to the country’s personal status laws, civil transactions, the penal code and criminal procedural laws.
The changes include, among other things, increased flexibility for such things as divorce and inheritance to accommodate customs and laws of the more than 200 nationalities that call the UAE home, decriminalization of alcohol consumption without a license and the elimination of leniency for honour killings.
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The UAE has long taken a progressive approach to personal and social freedoms and the legal reforms are expected to boost the federation’s attractiveness to both investors and expatriates.
The announcement generated immediate reaction on social media, both in the UAE and beyond.
Some 16,000 Arabic and English social media conversations – post, retweets, shares and comments – took place on Facebook and Twitter in the 24 hours after the legal reforms were unveiled, with conversations quickly trailing off in the days that followed.
The media accounted for a full 42% of original posts (as opposed to retweets or shares) about the news.
Media were a key driver for spreading the news on social media, with outlets from Australia to the United States posting the announcement of the UAE legal reforms on their accounts.
The media were also indirectly responsible for a significant proportion of social media conversations more generally in the form of users sharing links to the news on the outlets’ websites.
A story about the UAE reforms by RT – the English language news channel from Russia – was the most shared link.
The social media posts by news outlets generated high levels of engagement – retweets, shares and comments – with many attracting hundreds of comments.
A Facebook post by Qatari news channel Al Jazeera English generated the strongest engagement by far, with over 5,000 comments, nearly 4,000 shares and 26,000 reactions.
Views expressed by the public through some 14,000 comments on the media’s social media posts broadly fell into three categories:
- Users from the Middle East (but outside the UAE) reacted somewhat negatively to the news, with statements claiming the UAE is abandoning its values to appease the West
- Social media users from Pakistan and India welcomed the news and called on their own governments to enact similar reforms and do more to protect women from harassment
- Western users had mixed reactions, with some expressing sarcasm and pointing to long-standing personal freedoms in other parts of the world. Others lamented the current state of democracy and social tensions in some Western countries, particularly in the wake of the US presidential election, and highlighted the UAE’s tolerance.
Users in the UAE were generally positive toward the reforms and welcomed the changes. Some called for the reforms to go further, while others highlighted that the UAE has long been an open and tolerant society where people have long enjoyed widespread entertainment and lifestyle options.