It is well known that London is regarded as ‘divorce capital of the world’ largely for its generous treatment of wives in the event of marriage breakdown. Dubai, on the other hand, has developed a reputation as ‘divorce capital of the world’ for a different reason -- the high number of marriages that end there with a high rate of fallouts amongst the expat community.

Wherever they live any expatriate married couple facing the prospect of divorce will encounter three critical questions:-

  • Where can I divorce?
  • Where should I divorce?
  • Where are the resources of the marriage?

For those in the UAE, the different answers can in turn mean very different outcomes and some will appeal more to husbands than wives.  Like so many important decisions, timing is everything.

Local law

If you are living legitimately in the UAE and are resident then you are likely to be entitled to divorce there.  Non-Muslims can use the Law of Personal Status.  The local law remedies available are, however, limited; no spousal maintenance beyond 12 months of separation (understood not to exceed 25% of the husband’s income), the possibility of modest backdating in certain circumstances and no division of assets (pension, bonuses, property, savings etc) if they are not in joint names or a contribution (in money) can be proved. If children are involved then they will be supported and there is the possibility of the mother receiving a modest carer’s allowance.

A further option is the possibility, by agreement, for expatriates to ask the local Court to use the law of their own country.  (This applies provided the husband and wife are from the same country.  If they are from different countries then the law of the husband’s country will prevail.) However, examples of the UAE Courts fully applying English law are hard to find. In fact I would go so far as to say that the prospect of fully applying English law in such circumstances are nil.  

Remedies in England following a foreign divorce

If you are faced with a divorce in the UAE, however, there are two fall back positions:-

The possibility, following such a divorce, for a claim to be made in the Courts of the UK under Part III of the Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act 1984 which allows the English Court to make provision where an inadequate provision has been made overseas.  This is no “second bite of the cherry” but it can be useful to prevent hardship and provide a returning spouse and children with a home as well as a method of dividing pensions located in the UK.

Where there are children, an English Court can also make orders for the benefit of the children during their minority which can include the use of a home and a significantly more generous carer’s allowance for the mother.

However, if there are no assets/resources in England and Wales or another “friendly jurisdiction” then both these options are useless as the UAE Court will not assist in the enforcement of English Orders, ever. 

English proceedings

Most expatriate wives, let's be honest, will prefer an English law divorce if possible because it is likely to benefit them.  The right to start proceedings in England is governed by some fairly simple rules.  Habitual residence is one, however English domicile is another. Most expatriate couples would probably be found to have retained English domicile, particularly living in the UAE where citizenship is unlikely.   Moving around and no longer paying tax in the UK does not mean loss of domicile of origin.  Domicile is therefore often a route to snare jurisdiction in England where as things stand, the remedies available to wives include lifelong financial support, division of all assets including pensions (often equally) regardless of whose name they are in (although companies and trust assets will need careful analysis). 

Talking

Many divorce settlements in England are resolved by lawyers and their clients sitting together and talking about the best settlements for the family.  Expert advice from England would be an essential ingredient into such a conversation.  The conversations can take place in the UAE or in England and offer a smart way of avoiding the wrangling and cross jurisdictional Court struggles that often  follow when complex international families when divorcing.

Conclusion

The complexities and vagaries of the law on marriage breakdown for expatriates heading towards or residing in the UAE requires good legal advice here and there but leaves plenty of scope for divorce planning through pre and post-nuptial agreements, particularly regarding assets in Dubai which can also be made subject to locally enforceable agreements.  Don’t leave home without one would be my advice.