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Overview: Crimes Committed Outside the UAE

Published on : 20 Oct 2018

The Territorial Applicability of Criminal Law in the UAE


In may sound odd, but there is a difference between international criminal law and criminal international law. What’s more is that the differentiation between these two seemingly similar sounding things is of essential importance.

The international criminal law is a law which is laid down by the international community through international conventions held between several States. Therefore, it relates to international law subjects rather than municipal law.

The criminal international law is the law which concerns the rules of the crimes committed under the municipal criminal law, involving a foreign element, such as the venue of the offense, or the nationality of the victim or the offender. In such cases, the criminal law comes into focus to deal with the problems of legal jurisdiction and to solve the conflict of laws that may arise between domestic and foreign criminal rules.

The United Arab Emirates – territorial applicability

Federal Law Number 3 of 1987 (also known as the Penal Code) states within Article 16 that the Penal Code will apply to any person who commits a crime inside the territory of the State. The State shall consist of the lands and any place under its sovereignty, including territorial waters and airspace there above. 

A crime shall is considered to have been committed in the territory of the State if any of its constituent acts occurs therein, or if the result has been, or is intended to be, realized therein.

Article 17 provides for situations in which crimes are committed on-board warships and military aircraft which bear the flag of the State wherever they may be, such offense will fall within the ambit of the penal code. The applicability of the law will also apply to non-military governmental vessels owned or operated by the State for non-commercial purposes and as such commercial aircraft and ships bearing the flag of the state also fall within the purview of the law.

Where there has been an incident on a foreign ship which is in any of the ports of the State or its territorial waters, Article 18 of the Law states that the penal code will not apply unless the following circumstances are present:

  1. In cases where the effects of the crime extend to the State;
  2. If the crime by nature disturbs the peace or violates public morals or good order in its ports or territorial waters;
  3. If the shipmaster or consul of the State hoists their flag in an attempt to seek assistance from the local authorities;
  4. Should the offender or victim be a citizen of the State;
  5. If the vessel carriers materials or objects internationally banned from negotiation, possession or commercialization.

Although this provision does not extend to foreign aircraft in the airspace of the UAE Provisions will reach if the aircraft physically touches down in any of the airports after the perpetration of the crime. Also, if the crime by nature disturbs the peace in the State or violates its public policy, or if the offense violates the State navigation rules and regulations, or if the aircraft pilot seeks the assistance of the local authorities, or if the offender or victim is a State citizen.

There too are cases in which the merchant ships become submitted under the local State jurisdiction. This submission is following the International Seas Convention of 1982. These cases are as follows:

  1. The fact that the crime has been perpetrated by or against a person that is not a member of the crew;
  2. The case where the offense committed breaches the peace and security of the receiving state, such as in the case of smuggling of drugs; and
  3. The case where the ship has asked for intervention or assistance from the local authorities.

Where a person has committed a crime outside the State, according to Article 20 of this law, such person will fall within the ambit of the law and will be considered a principal or an accessory when the following crimes have been committed:

  1. An offense that violates the internal or external security of the state, its constitutional system or its legally issued financial securities or stamps or that involves forgery or counterfeiting of state instruments or official seals;
  2. Copy, falsification or copying of the states' currency, circulating or possessing the same for circulation, whether such acts are carried out within or outside the country;
  3. Forgery, falsification or counterfeiting of paper notes or minted coins for the distribution in the state, promoting such currencies and coins therein, or possession the same for circulation.

A citizen of the United Arab Emirate, while traveling abroad will not be able to escape liability under the law of the UAE. In accordance with Article 22 if a citizen becomes involved in an act which constitutes a crime as per this law, such person will be sanctioned in accordance with this law when he comes back to the country, provided that such a commission or omission is punishable in accordance with the law of the state within which the perpetration occurs.


The provisions of the criminal law are only applied within the States’ territory. The internationally accepted definition of territory includes the following:

  1. The land – which consists of the earth, whether it is joined or separated (e.g., in the case of islands);
  2. Water areas – which comprise of internal areas such as rivers, lakes, and canals, as well as external water areas which include the territorial sea (i.e., 12 miles from the shoreline); and
  3. Air and space – which covers up the abovementioned areas of land and water.

However, there are two exceptions to the territorial applicability of the criminal law. There is a contrary exception in the form of criminal immunity and a real limitation in the way of the transnational effect.

Concerning the contrary exception, the following persons will qualify as such:

  1. Foreign heads of states – the law provides that the culpable acts committed by the foreign Head of State or by one of his/her family members during their visit to a State, such actions will be covered by criminal immunity, and those persons shall not be accountable for their culpable acts before the national courts of the receiving State. The reason for this is due to the perfect equality and absolute independence of the sovereign state that the municipal courts are incapable of conferring extra-territorial power;
  2. Diplomates – this criminal immunity is confined only to the procedural rules of criminal law and not to the substantive provisions as such;
  4. Foreign public and military ships and aircraft - the criminal law of the receiving state is not applicable to such persons as these ships or aircraft represent the sovereignty of the guest State in the host state;
  6. Foreign armed forces.

Definite Exceptions to the Territorial Applicability of the Criminal Law

In this situation, a state will take it upon themselves to punish persons who have committed a crime abroad. Pronouncement of the punishment must occur in the State whose law has been broken and can only require execution if the offenders come within its territory. The UAE Law on this follows upon French principles, with jurisdiction over offenses committed abroad claimed within broad limits.


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