The full English? UAE adds English in disputes reforms

New language rules are designed to make the UAE a more desirable place to resolve disputes, write King & Spalding's Ben Williams and Kateryna Frolova
A picture of Dubai's skyline

UAE courts now allow proceedings to be heard in English Shutterstock

The UAE has established itself as a major international legal centre during the past few decades. The region’s fusion of local traditions and modern innovations has made it an attractive destination for many companies and investors. English has emerged as the default language of business in this period, including in the legal world. Whilst the courts in the country’s two freezones – the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) and the Abu Dhabi Global Market (ADGM) – have operated in English for some time, it was a notable development when in January, a new law paved the way for the onshore courts to hear cases in English too.
The provision is part of the wider Civil Procedure Law (Federal Law No. 42 of 2022), which came into force on 2 January this year. It ushered in several fundamental changes to the UAE Civil Procedure, service of proceedings, appeals to the Court of Appeal, appeals to the Court of Cassation and the option for English language proceedings. The new CP law replaces Federal Law No. 11 of 1992 on civil procedure.

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International outlook
The revamped rules are undoubtedly about making the UAE a more desirable place to resolve international disputes. Many contracts are written in English but subject to UAE law and the jurisdiction of the onshore courts, where Arabic is the official language. While Arabic will remain as the default, Article 5 of the new CP law provides that the president of the Federal Judicial Counsel or the head of the local judicial authority has the discretion to set English as the official language of a particular proceeding. 
This means that litigants, witnesses and lawyers will have the ability to conduct and hear certain cases in English at the discretion of the relevant official. It is still early days so quite how frequently the discretion will be deployed and how parties should go about securing the permission is not yet fully appreciated, but it provides an option for parties to request that a trial can be conducted in English with all pleadings, submissions, testimonies, judgments and decisions also in English.
We anticipate that it will be an attractive new option for cases involving international parties and contemporaneous documentation, including contracts and correspondence, that are already in English. But for the most part it is about better servicing existing demand. There are already numerous non-Arabic speaking parties subject to contracts governed by UAE law and subject to UAE onshore courts jurisdiction, because that is what UAE state-owned entities often demand of international counterparties doing business in UAE. 
The language concession is about making this more tolerable for them, more than it is an attempt to prise away cases from the ADGM and DIFC courts or courts further afield, for example, in London. Those courts – which operate exclusively in English – will inevitably remain attractive as a dispute resolution forum of choice in cross-border transactions. As too will international arbitration, a space where UAE now also has an internationally competitive offering – being both an adopter of the UNCITRAL Model Law and a signatory to the New York Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards.

Ben Williams is a partner in King & Spalding's trial practice and global disputes group and Kateryna Frolova is an associate.

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