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Dubai raises a glass to social changes in the Gulf

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When Patrick went to a media launch for a new smartphone in Dubai, the Gulf’s tourism and commercial hub, the expatriate never imagined that the evening would end in a police station.

After an enthusiastic embrace of the free bar that so often graces such marketing events, a verbal altercation with a taxi driver led to his arrest.

His contrite response to police questioning over his non-existent liquor licence — the official permission residents and visitors need to drink alcohol in the United Arab Emirates — helped secure his release after a night in the cells. A friend, who went through a similar experience, was “mouthy and aggressive”. He faced a different fate.

“They threw the book at him,” said Patrick, who declined to give his surname. “He went to court, paid a fine and left Dubai as soon as he got his passport back.”

Boozy brunches, high-end restaurants and seedy nightclubs have long formed part of Dubai’s allure for expatriates putting down roots in the conservative Gulf and tourists seeking winter sun. But for decades, consuming alcohol without a licence left people liable to a fine or jail term, generating headlines in the western press about legal jeopardy in Dubai.

A singer performs at a nightclub in Dubai. The UAE has long pitched itself as an outpost of tolerance in a region riven by religious extremism
A singer performs at a nightclub in Dubai. The UAE has long pitched itself as an outpost of tolerance in a region riven by religious extremism © Kamran Jebreili/AP

Now, as part of a clutch of social and legal reforms designed to make life easier for the expatriates that dominate the population, alcohol is to be decriminalised.

“The government is not saying that drinking alcohol isn’t haram (forbidden) — they are saying this is between you and God, and we are not going to police this,” said one Emirati briefed on the legal amendments.

“This marks a shift towards a more civic society,” he added. “The justification for these changes is that to attract international talent here, we need to align to a global way of doing things.”

The UAE, an autocratic federal Sheikhdom, has long pitched itself as an outpost of tolerance in a region riven by religious extremism. With bold moves such as forging diplomatic ties with Israel, the country’s leadership has shown a determination to overturn age-old norms and tilt away from religiously oriented laws drafted in the 1970s.

And unlike other Gulf states that are encouraging the departure of expatriates to provide more jobs for nationals, the UAE is seeking to revive population growth after the economic toll of the pandemic triggered an exodus of hundreds of thousands of foreign workers.

With this in mind, more changes are planned. The UAE has expanded its programme of long-term visas for highly skilled foreigners, doctors and specialised degree holders in sectors such as artificial intelligence and epidemiology. Foreigners are to be allowed to own 100 per cent of onshore businesses, removing the need for nationals to hold a controlling stake, potentially boosting investment.

“The recent changes modernising the local legal landscape for expats are likely to have a positive impact in attracting and retaining top talent,” said Catherine Workman, head of the Middle East for Pinsent Masons.

Other changes in some of the norms governing personal lives, such as making it legal for unmarried couples to live together, would also be welcomed by many, said Michael Rowlands, a partner in the family team at the UK’s JMW Solicitors, though questions remain. “At the moment, an unmarried woman who seeks medical treatment while pregnant runs the risk of being reported to the authorities for having extramarital sex and any child born out of wedlock is not recognised by the law,” he said.

Expatriates will also be able to use their home jurisdictions in family matters, something that is theoretically possible, but difficult in practice, say lawyers.

These shifts would also be a “game changer” for mothers, who could use English law to ask a judge for permission to leave the country permanently with their children, said Mr Rowlands. At present, a mother cannot apply to leave the country with her children without the father’s consent.

Applying overseas law could also favour the worse-off spouse in a divorce case, he added, meaning the region would “no longer be a haven for wealthy husbands”.

Other amendments, such as criminalising “honour” crimes against women who bring “shame” on to their families and decriminalising suicide, stand to benefit the minority national community.

And it is not just expatriates who will benefit from the decriminalisation of alcohol. In most Dubai pubs, those in national dress are asked to remove their traditional headscarf before being served alcohol. “Many come here and they mainly know the rules — they also cannot sit at the bar,” said Robyn, a bartender. “Sometimes they ask us to serve the drink in a tea cup.”

Some Emiratis, who make up only one in nine of the UAE population, have expressed concerns about the secularising reforms, fearing society is turning away from Islam. Others oppose any moves that cement the status and permanence of the majority expatriate population.

“Naturally, there are few religious and conservative segments in UAE society who are against these changes,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati professor of political science. “But most citizens trust government decisions and its determination to modernise the society.”



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Brazil virus variant found to evade natural immunity

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The P.1 Covid-19 variant that originated in Brazil and has spread to more than 25 countries is around twice as transmissible as some other strains and is more likely to evade the natural immunity people usually develop from prior infection, according to a new international study.

The research, conducted by a UK-Brazilian team of researchers from institutions including Oxford university, Imperial College London, the University of São Paulo, found that the P.1 variant was between 1.4 and 2.2 times more transmissible than other variants circulating in Brazil. 

It was also “able to evade 25-61 per cent of protective immunity elicited by previous infection” with any earlier variant, the researchers found, in a sign that current vaccines could also be less effective against it.

International concern about the P.1 variant has escalated recently, with more than 25 countries detecting the variant, including Belgium, Sweden and the UK, which has identified six cases.

The scientists are expected to release a paper describing the research on Tuesday. Dr Nuno Faria, the lead author, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The study has not yet been peer reviewed.

The researchers have dated the emergence of the P.1 variant to November 6, 2020, around one month before cases began to surge for a second time in the Brazilian city of Manaus. They found that the proportion of cases classified as P.1 in Manaus increased from zero to 87 per cent in the space of 7 weeks. 

The paper concluded: “Our results further show that natural immunity waning alone is unlikely to explain the observed dynamics in Manaus, with support for P.1 possessing altered epidemiological characteristics.”

“Studies to evaluate real-world vaccine efficacy in response to P.1 are urgently needed,” it added.

The researchers also found that infections were 10 to 80 per cent more likely to result in death in Manaus after the emergence of P.1. However, the authors cautioned that it was not possible to determine whether this meant the variant was more lethal or whether it was a result of increased strain on the city’s healthcare system, or a combination of both. 

The P.1 variant has over 17 mutations, which alter its genetic sequence from the virus originally identified in Wuhan, including 3 key changes to the spike protein that it uses to enter human cells.

Researchers in Brazil have been using genetic sequencing technology developed by Oxford Nanopore in the UK to identify and track the variant. The technology was first used in Brazil during the Zika outbreak in 2015.

Dr Leila Luheshi, director of applied and clinical markets at Oxford Nanopore, told the Financial Times that while the B.1.1.7 variant in the UK has similar properties of high transmissibility to P.1 — it is thought to be around 1.5 times as transmissible as variants that preceded it — there was no evidence to date that it evaded past natural immunity in the same way. Studies so far have also shown that current vaccines retain their efficacy against B.1.1.7.

Luheshi said that the concern with P.1 is that “because it has these mutations around the spike . . . the hypothesis is that the vaccine will be less effective.” But she added that there is not yet definitive evidence to support this theory. 



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Coronavirus latest: Production glitches to delay Johnson & Johnson vaccine distribution

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Coronavirus latest: Production glitches to delay Johnson & Johnson vaccine distribution



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Norsk Hydro blamed for birth defects in Amazon forest pollution case

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Maria do Socorro explains in graphic detail the spate of ailments affecting newborns in her remote community in the Amazon: her grandson died after being born with his intestines outside his body, while others were missing organs or had undeveloped bones.

For the 56-year-old community leader, there is little doubt about the cause of these illnesses. She said the rainforest town had for years suffered from toxic waste pollution from the local operations of Norwegian aluminium producer Norsk Hydro.

Long a simmering environmental scandal in Brazil, the allegations were brought on to the international stage this month when Socorro’s community sued the Norwegian giant in a Dutch court, seeking damages for claims that “the incorrect disposal of toxic waste” from operations in the area had caused a variety of health ailments, polluted the rainforest and destroyed economic opportunities.

“We cannot have future generations because the children are born and then die. Whole families are contaminated,” said Socorro from the Barcarena township in the northern state of Pará.

The case — filed just days before the UK’s top court ruled that Royal Dutch Shell could face legal action in London brought by thousands of Nigerian villagers over alleged pollution — is the latest international trial pitting large, resource-hungry companies against impoverished rural communities.

It also comes amid mounting pressure on companies to abide by strict environmental standards, a push being spearheaded visibly by Scandinavian investors.

One of the allegations in the lawsuit is that the pollution has caused birth defects © Alessandro Falco/Bloomberg

“If business can be global, why can’t justice? These companies have businesses everywhere, but then when they do something wrong they want to smother the possibility of people getting compensation,” said Pedro Martins, partner at law firm PGMBM, which is representing 40,000 alleged victims bringing the suit against Norsk Hydro.

“International corporations have different standards for how they do business in the northern and southern hemispheres as if life in the southern hemisphere does not have the same value.”

Through local entities, Norsk Hydro runs three facilities — a bauxite mine, a refinery and a smelter — in Pará, a vast Amazonian state that is a flashpoint for illegal deforestation, gold mining and land-grabbing.

The company said it would respond to the request before the court in the Netherlands, where its subsidiaries controlling the local entities at issue are headquartered. It denied that in 2018 pollutants from its facilities spilled over during heavy rains and polluted nearby rivers and earth. The company declined to comment further.

A source close to the company said, however, that it did “not see the [health] effects that have been claimed. The actual impact is hard to see and there aren’t any studies showing that.”

Map of Brazil

A combination of poor sanitary conditions and the tropical climate could be behind many of the health issues, he added: “There are a lot of feelings and not so many things relating to actual facts.”

Locals say bauxite, lead and aluminium pollution have turned the region’s rivers red. A study from the Evandro Chagas Institute, a Brazilian public health body, found in 2018 that the region’s waters were so polluted with industrial waste from the Norsk Hydro facilities that they “cannot be used for recreation, fishing, or human consumption”.

Like many Amazonian communities, much of the Barcarena township depends heavily on fishing and farming for survival, work that they now say is impossible.

“I invite these Norwegians to come and bathe in our waters. I challenge them. They have good water there in Norway. Our wealth just goes there,” said Socorro, who heads Cainquiama, a group representing mainly indigenous people and quilombolas — the descendants of runaway slaves.

Nearly all of the claimants in the suit have complained about chronic pain, hair loss and skin conditions. The suit also contains claims in relation to birth defects, such as those that have affected Socorro’s grandson, who was born with gastroschisis — a hole in the abdominal wall.

A pipe belonging to alumina refinery Alnorte, which is owned by Norsk Hydro, in Barcarena © Ricardo Moraes/Reuters

“Studies around the world have shown the effects [of toxic metals] on pregnant women, foetuses and children at birth,” said Marcelo de Oliveira Lima, a public health researcher at the Chagas institute. “But our studies so far did not go deep enough to show the [connection]. Other studies are still being done.”

The case is a sensitive one for Norwegian investors and the government, which owns a 34 per cent stake in Norsk Hydro. Oslo has long attempted to hold Brasília to account for the environmental destruction of the Amazon, even publishing its own data on deforestation in the world’s largest rainforest.

“There seem to be quite some dispute about the facts in this case and in particular about the actual harm of the spill to local environment and whether the company is somehow to blame by neglecting important safety measures,” said Jeanett Bergan, head of responsible investments at the KLP pension fund, Norway’s largest pension provider.

“We know Norsk Hydro as a responsible corporate actor when doing businesses abroad. I do not think [this case] will damage the credibility of Norwegian actors.”

Climate Capital

Where climate change meets business, markets and politics. Explore the FT’s coverage here 

Martins, the lawyer leading the group action, said they brought the case in the Netherlands because of the inertia of the Brazilian court system. He believes the case can reach a verdict in 18 or 24 months.

Brazil is no stranger to environmental disasters. This month, miner Vale agreed to a $7bn settlement with authorities over a dam breach in 2019 in the Brumadinho township that killed hundreds of people and polluted vast tracts of lands with industrial sludge.

BHP was sued in a British court over a dam failure in Brazil’s Mariana township in 2015 that left 19 dead. The case was thrown out because parallel proceedings were taking place in Brazil.

“The Hydro case draws attention for having caused significant environmental damage,” said Luiz Eduardo Rielli, director of sustainability consultancy Novi. “After three years, what I care most about is: What lessons have been learned? How can we ensure that new damages do not occur?”

Additional reporting by Richard Milne in Oslo and Carolina Pulice in São Paulo



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