I represent expatriate families going through marriage breakdown in the UAE in respect of their rights or indeed risks if their divorce takes place in England. The first question that I am usually asked is “Should I stay in Dubai or should I go back to England?” My response is usually to ask “Can you stay or must you go?

In the UAE, residency is based on sponsorship by either an employer or a spouse and without a sponsor you cannot legally reside in the UAE. It gets worse, particularly when children are involved. In any country, it is possible for an expatriate parent (usually the mother) to apply to a local court for permission to permanently remove her children from the country in which they live if her children’s father does not consent. In most countries that I am familiar with, a request to relocate children is never an easy task, however, and I have yet to meet a lawyer in the UAE who has been able to tell me of a successful, opposed, application.

There is an obvious dilemma, if a wife divorces her husband while living in Dubai with the family’s children, she may be forced to leave the country without a visa, but the children will not be able to join her as they will have no permission and are subject to a travel ban.

Many women, believing they have no option, simply leave the country with their children hoping that the children will not be compelled to return. In these cases two things happen; either the children and their mother will never be able to return to the UAE with the consequential damage to the children’s relationship with their father or, the children will be returned by a flurry of expensive court proceedings (many countries will treat the unauthorised removal of the children as an abduction) and the mother will not be able to join them – no visa, no residency permit and the very real prospect of prison and the inability of the children ever to leave the country alone again.

Of all the subjects that I am asked to advise on, this is the most difficult. I do not know how many expatriate mothers in the UAE remain there in very unhappy marriages because they cannot see a way through this maze, which means that divorce is often not an option until the children have grown up or the children’s father lifts the travel ban that he has placed to prevent them leaving the country.

Restrictions when living in the UAE without a permanent visa

There is, I am told, a whole community of expatriate mothers and ex-wives who live in the UAE’s “twilight zone” of the “visa run”. No permanent visa means that these mothers and ex-wives have to leave the UAE frequently (to Hata for example) to renew their tourist visas. This is the option of last resort and it has created a sub class of residents with every reason to fear that each month will be their last in the UAE because anecdotally, no one knows how many times a tourist visa can be renewed.

I asked Michel Chalhoub, managing partner of International Counsels Advocats & Legal Consultants about these visas and the limitations they might place on ordinary life.

  • Repeatedly renewing the travel visa is not illegal but you cannot work
  • Only a limited number of banks will allow you to open and operate a restricted bank account
  • You can only enter into short term tenancies
  • Without a residency number, you cannot obtain a UAE health card
  • There may be limitations on the use of travel insurance obtained out of the country for a person who is effectively living abroad.

Alternative visa options to spousal visas for residency in the UAE

However, there are alternatives for the wife who is about to lose her spousal visa and I asked Aideen Hopkins of Executive Expatriate Relocations (EER) to explain the options to me.

Click on the headings below to view details.

The choices expatriate wives in the UAE have to make

In short, the choices expatriate wives are left with are:

  • Remain in an unhappy marriage;
  • Run away with the children, with all the risks that go with that;
  • Divorce abroad or locally and enter into the “twilight zone” of the visa run; or
  • Divorce in England.

London (England) is still seen as the divorce capital of the world on account of the fact that wives are likely to receive more generous settlements here than almost anywhere else in the world. What is certain is that the settlements are far more wide ranging in terms of disclosure, consideration and awards than in the UAE. Assets and income in England are broadly distributed on the broad principles of “sharing” and “need”. There can be no question at all that a wife’s “needs” for a visa to remain in the UAE so as to care for dependent children would be seen as a priority for the English courts and would, subject to the available resources, form part of the award from the court on divorce.

In truth, these issues and challenges outlined in this blog should be considered long before they happen and ideally, safeguards could be put in place to prevent them. As a divorce lawyer, I am staggered that couples move to the UAE without giving any thought to the problems they may encounter further down the line if the relationship was to break down. Planning to become an expatriate must include a contingency plan and discussions around what happens if things go wrong.