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Closing Down, Opening Up – a year of unprecedented change in the legal landscape of the UAE

By on January 4, 2021

From forced shuttering of businesses necessitated by COVID-19 to the opening of its borders to Israel following the Abraham Accords, 2020 has been a year of unprecedented change in the legal and commercial landscape of the UAE.

As the staggering scale of the pandemic began to become clear towards the end of the first quarter, the challenges facing governments around the world were manifold. It was critical, not only to stymie the spread of the contagion but also to ensure some semblance of financial stability in a world economic order that was fast falling apart.

Each country responded in its own way.

The UAE Central Bank established a US $27 billion Targeted Support Scheme and the governments of the UAE, Abu Dhabi and Dubai initiated stimulus programs to ease liquidity issues and provide temporary relief to struggling businesses and individuals. Interest rates were lowered, lenders were encouraged to defer loan repayments and provide zero-cost financing.

The closing of businesses due to events beyond man’s control perhaps led to action in areas where changes were within human reach.

The gates to the corporate sector in the UAE were flung open further with the removal of the 51% local ownership requirement.

Onshore companies can now be wholly owned by non-Emiratis, previously elusive – and a monumental step towards opening the economy to foreign direct investment in mainland UAE.

In a sign of changing times, electronic voting was allowed thereby enabling the holding of AGMs in cyberspace.

The UAE Central Bank also allowed crowdfunding-based lending, a fast-growing industry worldwide. The DFSA allowed SMEs to list their shares in NASDAQ Dubai and the Dubai Mercantile Exchange.

Changes were made on the individual level too.

With the greatest number of immigrants per capita in the world, the UAE is a uniquely diverse place.

In November, the UAE government issued a raft of legal amendments aimed at harmonising its legal code with the interests of its residents. The reforms eased laws relating to divorce, inheritance, crimes against women, cohabitation outside of wedlock and alcohol consumption.

Now, you would have heard most people say that they want to forget 2020?

Though a niche, keen watchers of cross-border dispute mechanisms may differ: 2020 was an astounding year for the enforceability of UAE court judgments outsides its borders.

In the case of Lenkor Energy Trading DMCC v Irfan Iqbal Puri [2020] EWHC 75 an English High Court recognised and enforced a judgment of the Dubai Courts despite the absence of an enforcement treaty between the UAE and the United Kingdom. This could be deemed to be the requisite reciprocity criteria required by UAE courts to enforce English Court judgments. Time will tell.

India also became a “reciprocating territory” in relation to the enforcement of civil judgments rendered by UAE, DIFC and ADGM courts. This removed the onerous requirement of a successful litigant having to file a fresh claim in the Indian courts and risk lengthy delays.

The signing of the Abraham Accords in September led to the repeal of the Israel Boycott Laws of 1972. It’s ushered in an era of enthusiastic, frenetic deal making: the technology, finance, retail and agri-tech are of most focus currently. Joint ventures have since been announced at a dizzying rate. One of these is a US $3 billion development fund based out of Jerusalem.

With all the challenges 2020 has thrown up, the UAE proves that vision mixed with diverse talent is what inspires for a better tomorrow.

Kamal K. Jabbar

Kamal is a Partner at Keystone Law Middle East LLP with over 18 years of banking, finance, corporate and commercial law experience in the MENA region. An England & Wales qualified barrister, he advises individuals, start-ups and SMEs in mitigating legal risk and expanding their operations in the Middle East and beyond.

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