Jurisdiction Of UAE Courts And Applicability of An Individual’s Personal Law

07 Nov 2023


The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a nation known for its diverse culture, booming economy, and a legal system that uniquely blends civil law principles with Islamic Sharia law. Understanding the jurisdiction of UAE courts and the applicability of an individual's personal law within this framework is crucial, especially for expatriates residing in the country. The UAE has a federal legal system, but each of the seven emirates that make up the UAE (Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah, Fujairah, Umm Al Quwain, and Ajman) retains a degree of autonomy in legal matters. Therefore, the specific application of laws and jurisdiction can vary depending on the emirate. In this article, we delve into the complexities of this legal landscape.

Here are some key points regarding the jurisdiction of UAE courts and the applicability of an individual's personal law:

The Dual Legal System:

The UAE operates under a dual legal system where federal and local laws coexist. Federal laws are applicable across all seven emirates, while each emirate retains the authority to enact its local regulations and laws. This duality can sometimes create ambiguity in legal matters, making it important to identify which jurisdiction applies in a given situation.

Jurisdiction of UAE Courts:

UAE courts possess the authority to adjudicate over various civil and criminal cases, with jurisdiction typically tied to the location of the dispute. For instance, if a contract dispute arises in Abu Dhabi, the Abu Dhabi courts would typically have jurisdiction to hear the case. Federal courts, such as the Federal Supreme Court, handle matters that fall under federal jurisdiction, ensuring uniformity in federal law interpretation.

Applicability of Personal Law:

One of the distinctive features of the UAE legal system is the application of Islamic Sharia law in personal status matters. Matters such as marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance are governed by Sharia principles. Sharia courts are responsible for handling these cases and issuing judgments in accordance with Islamic law. However, the applicability of personal law differs for Muslim and non-Muslim residents of the UAE:

Muslims: Muslim residents are generally subject to Islamic Sharia law in personal status matters, irrespective of their nationality. Sharia courts handle these cases, and judgments are based on Islamic principles.

Non-Muslims: Federal Decree Law Number 41 of 2022 on Civil Personal Status for Non-Muslims in the UAE is a comprehensive legal framework that governs family matters for non-Muslim residents. This law offers non-Muslim residents the freedom to choose between following the legal norms of their home country or opting for alternative personal status laws applicable in the UAE, rather than being bound by the provisions of this Decree Law. This choice is made through a legal process known as "election of domicile”.

This legal framework encompasses various crucial aspects of family law, including marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody. It sets forth the necessary requirements and procedures for contracting a marriage and officially registering it through the competent judicial authorities. Moreover, it meticulously outlines the procedures for divorce, allowing for both joint and individual divorce petitions. In cases of divorce, this Decree Law provides a structured framework for resolving financial claims that may arise post-divorce. Additionally, it establishes guidelines for the shared custody of children, ensuring that their best interests are safeguarded.

Choice of Law in Contracts:

In commercial and contractual disputes, parties often have the freedom to choose the governing law within their contracts. This flexibility allows parties to apply the laws of a jurisdiction that they believe best suits their needs and objectives.

Key Considerations:

Legitimate Connection: The chosen law must have a reasonable connection to the contract. Parties cannot arbitrarily select a foreign law with no substantial relationship to the contract. Courts in the UAE may disregard a choice of law clause if it appears to be a mere pretext to evade legal requirements or regulations.

Public Policy: UAE courts will not enforce a choice of law clause if it violates UAE public policy. For example, a choice of law clause that attempts to evade mandatory labor laws or contravene fundamental principles of justice may be deemed unenforceable.

Non-Exclusion of UAE Mandatory Provisions: Even if parties choose a foreign governing law, certain mandatory provisions of UAE law may still apply to the contract. These mandatory provisions often relate to public order, such as rules on public policy, morals, and ethics.

Application and Implications:

Choice of law clauses in contracts within the UAE can have several implications:

Contract Interpretation: The chosen law will govern the interpretation of contract terms and the resolution of disputes. This means that courts will apply the selected law when interpreting contract provisions.

Rights and Obligations: Parties must be aware that the chosen law may grant different rights and impose different obligations compared to UAE law. This can significantly impact the outcome of contractual disputes.

Enforceability: Courts in the UAE typically respect the choice of law clause and enforce contracts according to the selected law. However, there may be variations in the interpretation and enforcement of the contract if it is subsequently litigated in another jurisdiction.


In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the principles of choice of law hold paramount significance in both personal status law and contract law. In personal status law, non-Muslim residents have the option to choose between following their home country's legal norms or opting for alternative personal status laws in the UAE, providing flexibility in family matters.

Similarly, in contract law, parties to agreements within the UAE can select the governing law of their contract, fostering predictability and autonomy. However, it is essential to consider factors like legitimate connection and public policy when making this choice. These legal principles demonstrate the UAE's commitment to accommodating diverse legal systems within its jurisdiction while promoting clarity and fairness in personal and commercial relationships.