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Insight into Family Issues for Expats Living in Dubai


Written By:

Susan J Williams,
Partner and Head of Family,
Ince (Cardiff)



At the heart of the UAE, Dubai is a vibrant country, which offers amazing work opportunities for lots of British people looking to enhance their career, to work in a unique and exciting country, and to experience a different culture and meet with people from all over the world.

Dubai has a large, thriving expat community, which makes up an average 80% of the resident population. However, becoming an expat in Dubai is one of the biggest decisions you can make.

Living in a foreign country as an expat away from family and friends, often for the first time, can be daunting. Many couples also chose to live apart, with one working in Dubai and the other remaining in the home country, particularly if they have children. These types of issues can have a detrimental effect on relationships. Divorce rates in Dubai are very high, on average as many as one in four marriages break down – and 60% of those are from the expat community.

When a relationship breaks down, couples find themselves juggling both coping with the end of their marriage and facing the legal complications of ending a marriage in a foreign country.

Each person’s experience when ending a marriage is different and unique in some way or other. Therefore, seeking specialist knowledge of the available options and the present issues is very important – and early advice is crucial.

UAE is one of the most liberal countries in the Gulf, and other cultures and beliefs being generally tolerated. Whilst it is a cosmopolitan and modern country, it still has ties to its Islamic culture and heritage – which is reflected in the way it deals with ending a marriage.

If you are an expat living in Dubai and you are ending your marriage, you will experience the unique approach that Dubai adopts when bringing a marriage to an end.

What law will be applied when ending a marriage in Dubai?

For Muslim couples, Sharia Law is applied in order to end a marriage.

For non-Muslim couples, a choice exists. The person initiating the end of the marriage can either opt for proceedings through the UAE court process, or they can chose to have their home country family laws applied if they are able to satisfy the requirements around habitual residence or domicile. As most expats retain their domicile in their home country, then usually there is no problem in satisfying these requirements. Nevertheless, in circumstances where the home country does not have laws that cover the disputed issue, then the UAE law will be applied.

Therefore, one of the first questions to ask when a couple wishes to end their marriage is which jurisdiction should be used. This will always depend on the individual circumstances of the case, but will include factors such as; whether you are the husband or wife, whether there any children, and what and where the matrimonial assets are located. This is why earlier expert legal advice should be obtained.

Of course, in the event couples cannot decide on the jurisdiction, the UAE laws will apply by default.

What is the process for ending a marriage in Dubai?

As in the UK, couples divorcing in Dubai are encouraged to reach an agreement early on. Couples have to meet with a mediator/conciliator at the start of the process and are encouraged to reach an agreement on the reason for the divorce and a financial settlement and arrangements for the children. Mediation has the additional benefits of being cheaper than disputed court proceedings and it reduces conflict and assists couples to speed up the process of ending the marriage. Reaching a mediated agreement enables this to go through the Personal Status Court. If an agreement cannot be reached, then the issues that are left to be resolved will then go through the Court process.

Will an existing Visa to live or work in Dubai be affected by the divorce?

This question is often particularly relevant to non-working wives who are in Dubai sponsored by the husband because of his work. In recent years, Dubai have introduced Visa provisions specifically for divorced women to extend their visa for up to a year to remain in Dubai. This removes the fear of being automatically deported upon divorce and provides for a transition period for divorced women to obtain employment in Dubai if the intention is to stay there long term.

What are the arrangements for children following a divorce?

The anxiety surrounding the arrangements for the children is always at the forefront of couples facing divorce. In the UAE, parental responsibility for each parent towards the children does not exist. The laws around children are very traditional; mothers are regarded as being custodians of children until boys are 11 years old and girls are 13 years old – although mothers can apply for these periods to be extended in some circumstances. Fathers are regarded as the children’s guardian and have the right to spend time with the children on average one to two days a week. Fathers can also seek to be custodians of the children once they have reached 11 years old for boys, or 13 years old for girls.

In addition, a particular issue for separating couples arises if one parent wants to return to their home country with the children. This is not possible unless the other parent consents. Without this consent, this would be regarded as child abduction which could lead to serious consequences; including the home country having to order the parent and child to return to Dubai. There is also provision for a parent worried that the other parent will remove the child without their consent to apply to the UAE Court for a Travel Ban.

Therefore, it is important to talk about the arrangements for the children as early as possible, so assumptions on these arrangements cannot be made.

How are the matrimonial assets divided?

In respect of finances, choosing the right jurisdiction is very important. Under the UAE Laws, sharing of matrimonial assets during a divorce is not a principle that is followed. In general, you retain the assets that are in your name, and it is only joint assets that are shared. This is often problematic for wives who may not have any assets in their name and are not named as a joint owner of assets. In addition, the husband will be responsible for all of the costs of the child, including the costs of the mother’s accommodation whilst looking after the child, in addition to the child’s education and health costs. This is not the same as proceedings in the UK, which clearly demonstrates that the jurisdiction for the divorce proceedings is very important – and is very case fact-specific.

If you are embarking on the dream of relocating with your family to work and live in Dubai, or if you are currently living in the expat community, and you are faced with the enormous challenges of dealing with the breakdown of your marriage – getting the right legal advice is crucial.

At Ince, we will travel the journey with you so that during turbulent times – you are not alone. With an office in Dubai, we are tuned in to the legal and cultural issues in the country. We are here to advise and guide you whilst you navigate the decisions and processes that you will face.

The information above is not and should not be taken to be legal advice. You should not take action or omit to take action based on this information.

If you require any help on the issues raised above, our colleagues would be delighted to help you with any queries:

For more information, please call our Family team on +44 (0) 330 127 5703 or visit our website:



Ince has strong roots in Cardiff; as local solicitors Francis Ince and John Ingledew first set up practice here before founding the firm in 1870. We are proud of our heritage; which has enabled us to cultivate a seamless ‘one-firm’ approach across our global group.

We understand the ever-changing market in England and Wales, and how to support the growth of your business. Whether you are a business start-up or an established multinational corporation, through our Cardiff office you can access fully serviced commercial legal advice. Our Cardiff team also provides advice to individuals across the full-spectrum of personal law matters; from family law to residential property.

As a part of The Ince Group, an international legal and consultancy services provider with offices across Europe, the Middle East and Asia, we work seamlessly with other leading regional and international firms to offer you a wealth of legal services.


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