Closing The Gulf: England, Divorce And Middle Eastern Reforms
Published on 08 December, 2021 | Hannah Baddeley
Although it hasn’t changed in size, it may have appeared that the world has become a smaller place in recent decades as advances in travel have put once far off places within easy reach.
That has not just been something of a boon for the tourist industry but for the international labour market too.
It has coincided with increasing development in South East Asia and the oil rich Middle Eastern states keen to attract talented individuals capable of taking their respective economies forward.
Yet far more familiar locations have sought to reinforce their positions of influence.
Almost a decade ago, in fact, The Times was reporting that London was exerting its own pull by drawing an increasing number of wealthy foreign nationals eager to have their divorces settled here (https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/d3a023c8-2dec-4438-b30c-7c1de9dd74e3?shareToken=ea41972a288541db901c1db005aa6b49)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, other countries have responded with measures of their own intended to counter the UK’s legal magnetism.
Most recently – and arguably most notably – is Abu Dhabi, which last month introduced a series of reforms designed to appeal to its large non-native and non-Muslim inhabitants.
Abu Dhabi is the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a cluster of seven emirates at the eastern end of the Arabian Peninsula.
It is home to some 1.5 million people, roughly 80 per cent of whom are foreigners, including a considerable number of expatriate Britons.
A new secular law (entitled the Family Law for Non-Muslim Expatriates in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi) will allow divorce outside Islamic or sharia codes for the first time (https://www.reuters.com/business/media-telecom/abu-dhabis-new-secular-family-law-steps-up-gulf-talent-competition-2021-11-11/).
Many aspects of sharia law give more standing to men than women. The new draft legislation, however, has been hailed as “revolutionary”, allowing – amongst other things – for joint custody of children and divorce petitions to proceed without demonstrating that one or other spouse was at fault.
In that sense, it would actually overtake the most substantive reform in divorce law in England and Wales in half a century.
So-called ‘no-fault’ divorce was approved as part of the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act, which successfully navigated its way through parliament and onto the Statute Book last year (https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2020/11/contents/enacted).
It was anticipated that the legislation would come into force this autumn but ministers were forced to concede that delays – especially in readying the system of online divorce for the change – meant that it would not actually be available until April next year (https://www.lawgazette.co.uk/news/no-fault-divorce-wont-come-into-force-in-2021-government-concedes/5108759.article).
Even so, I don’t think that the hold-up together with more foreigner-friendly laws in the Middle East will necessarily erode London’s standing.
After all, the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union was predicted to have a negative impact on caseload in the family courts here.
Media such as the Financial Times have concluded that the opposite is true, with many divorcing Britons living overseas actually choosing to return home to negotiate their financial settlements (https://on.ft.com/3Afttv0).
There is also a certain irony that the divorce of one of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of the one of the UAE emirates, Dubai, began in London in October (https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/e472410c-376d-11ec-b83a-bd8490b9f48d?shareToken=10dae9f8e7771e168646fa9135210dc4).
London has not established its reputation as ‘the world’s divorce capital’ because of a single judgement but over a number of years and due to a voluminous caseload.
That caseload has been regarded as more progressive than elsewhere, particularly when it comes to identifying the contribution made by wives to often lengthy marriages.
New laws in Abu Dhabi and other jurisdictions may, if you pardon the pun, go some way to closing the gulf between themselves and London but will not topple England’s position as the most desirable destination for those able to demonstrate that their divorce should be heard here.