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Property Inheritance Laws and Their Relevance to Non-Muslims and Expatriates in Dubai, UAE

Property Inheritance Laws and Their Relevance to Non-Muslims and Expatriates in Dubai, UAE 2

Differences in Property Inheritance Laws from the West and from the UAE and Their Relevance to Non-Muslims and Expatriates


Inheritance is a universal aspect of the aftermath of an individual’s death. The death of a loved one can cause many issues in families if there is no clear direction as to how the deceased belongings should be distributed. There are numerous cases in courts all over the world disputing the ownership of inherited belongings especially where no official will is left behind that can clearly show the deceased person’s final wishes. For individuals living and working in foreign countries, it is important to understand the legal requirements of the host country and how they can affect you controlling your assets and finally bequeathing them to loved ones. The differences in laws and culture can actually limit your ability to divide your belongings amongst those you care about.

Non-Muslim Expatriates in Dubai, UAE

Expatriates make up a large percentage of the population of Dubai and the UAE. It is widely known that expats are outnumber the actual Emiratis by about 80%. The number of these individuals who are non-Muslim continues to increase by the day. Because of the large number of non-Muslim expats, there are many who invest in the country in terms of purchasing properties or holding their assets within the country. They mostly originate from home countries that are not majority Muslim and are in the western hemisphere of the world. In order to survive in their new working and living environments, it is crucial to understand the cultural and social differences that affect the legal structure of the UAE and that of their home countries.

Differences between the West and the UAE

The Western countries and the UAE are the complete opposites of each other given that the latter is predominantly Islamic with a population of Arabs while the former has a variety or religions and racial/ethnic groups. The differences in culture, social structure and religion affect how the legal system is set up. The UAE follows Sharia law while allowing for some level of interpretation from Islamic scholars and judges. The Sharia law is a strict Islamic law that is considered sacred. Conversely, the laws in western countries are based on theoretical concepts of governance such as democracy. This is the first difference between the legal structures of the two. The UAE’s legal structure is based on religion and Islamic culture while the western countries have legal systems based on the theories of governance and political ideologies.

The homogeneity of the Islamic society makes it easy to implement strict and specific rules that do not require much interpretation. Judges essentially exist to adjudicate on small matters while simply implementing the Sharia law to the fullest. Only the rarest of cases is likely to be given special treatment and only when the conventional solutions are unsuitable. On the other hand, the diversity of the western countries means that the laws have to be broad and generalized in order to consider all the possible outcomes. This means that judgements are made on a case by case status so that two judgements of the same case can be wildly different from each other. The courts have a much greater power to interpret and make judgements as they see fit.

Inheritance laws are the best illustration of the difference between the West and the UAE in terms of their legal structures. Inheritance in Western countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom generally follow the wills of deceased persons as they are. For example, an individual can will their entire estate to a charitable cause even if they have some living relatives. In contrast, the inheritance laws Dubai focus on the distribution of possessions among the living relatives. There is a strict method of conducting this process whereby every member of the family receives their inheritance based on a rigid scheme that accounts for their familial relation with the deceased, gender and status in the family.  There is a focus on the Islamic traditions on how to redistribute a dead individual’s items.

How are these differences relevant to me as an expat?

These differences are extremely important to all expats especially those who are non-Muslim. Because of the strictness of the Sharia law used in the UAE, it is important to know that the inheritance laws are subject to these laws rather than those of your home country. Understanding these differences ensures that expats are conscious that the consequences of actions in the UAE can be very severe for them. The property inheritance laws in the west may not be applicable to you even as a Non-Muslim expat. You must therefore take the legal structure in the UAE very serious with regards to your final will and testament if you want it distributed according to your home country’s laws.


The differences in social structure and culture affect the legal structures of countries. While it is clear that the UAE favors the use of Sharia law, they are also recognizant of the fact that a large population is made up of expats. There are some few legal provisions that are designed to help you remain in control of your assets even in death and determining one’s own heirs.

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