Eastern Promise

With the growing global importance of Islamic finance, the Middle East is emerging as a vital legal hub, offering an ideal opportunity for lawyers looking to make a name for themselves in this flourishing practice area

The Middle East is an exciting place for law firms to be established. With large-scale investment banks and a fast-paced projects and infrastructure sector, it is no wonder jurisdictions in this region are considered to be booming in the global economy.

Dubai has for some time been considered the hot spot of the Middle East, with its thriving capital market and world-renowned stock exchange, the DIFX.

Magic circle firms such as Clifford Chance and Allen & Overy (A&O) have had a presence in Dubai since the 1970s, when oil and gas were a vital part of the economy.

Julian Johansen, an A&O partner based in Dubai, says: Dubai is extremely important to us as a firm. We have channelled a lot of energy into our teams here and regard Dubai as a centre for us.

Dubai has indeed been the origin for some big deals you may be familiar with. A&O and Denton Wilde Sapte (DWS) both bagged plum roles on the multi-billion pound takeover of ports operator P&O by Dubais DP World.

A&O also played a part on the first-ever dual listing of a sukuk a sharia-compliant bond on the Dubai and London stock exchanges.

Johansen says: Dubai is thriving and you can see it developing every day. There are some really innovative deals coming out of Dubai; its very exciting.

It is deals such as these that brought Ashurst and Herbert Smith to the region in recent months and keeps old-timers such as Norton Rose on the ground for good.

You would be forgiven for believing the Middle East is all about Dubai. This perception is understandable considering it is the jurisdiction we read about most in the financial pages.

But law firms have offices in other parts of the region and take them just as seriously. Norton Rose has four partners based in Bahrain, which is again a hot spot for infrastructure and energy work.

Abu Dhabi and Qatar also offer a lot of work to corporate and finance practices, with more banks launching offices in these jurisdictions each year.

Until the Qatar Financial Centre (QFC) and the QFC Regulatory Authority (QFCRA) were established in Qatar, foreign firms had to form a local partnership with the controlling stake residing in that firm to be able to set up there.

By acquiring a licence from the QFC, firms such as Eversheds, Clyde & Co and Simmons & Simmons all have their own office in Qatar, focusing on a wide range of practice areas.

One Simmons & Simmons partner based in Qatar, Andrew Wingfield, says: Capital markets have exploded in Qatar like the rest of the Middle East and it doesnt show any sign of stopping. This is why law firms are including Qatar in their strategy.

Last month (28 May) The Lawyer reported on the launch of the QFCs Civil and Commercial Court, which will encourage many more firms and businesses to launch in the jurisdiction because of the legal framework it provides for international businesses.

With more than 50 international businesses already set up in the jurisdiction it is easy to see that we should be taking Qatar seriously and viewing it as a strong rival to neighbouring Dubai.

An area that is becoming increasingly important for law firms seeking to succeed in the Middle East is Saudi Arabia. While firms must form a partnership with a local firm to set up on the ground, UK and US firms are viewing Saudi as a hot spot.

A&Os Johansen says: Its extremely important to find the right partnership in Saudi. It has to be beneficial to both parties and the culture of the firms have to fit well with each other.

Earlier this month (June) The Lawyer reported on Trowers & Hamlins new association with local Saudi firm Hassan Mahassni.

The launch of this partnership and A&Os new association with Riyadh-based firm Abdulaziz AlGasim are two of the very few associations in operation.

Baker & McKenzie and Clifford Chance also have established offices in the Kingdom, taking advantage of the lucrative project based work on offer.

Johansen says: We took our time when we decided we wanted to set up in Saudi. You cant just set up with a firm, you have to consider the wider implications and how well the association will serve each group.

It is definitely a challenge for law firms to set up in the Middle East, but it seems to be extremely rewarding for the high numbers of partners and associates who work there.

A key trend in the finance arena at the moment is Islamic finance, and while London is fast becoming a hot spot for sharia-compliant instruments, there is no better place to be than Dubai.

All the key UK and US firms based in Dubai have tried to ramp up their capabilities in this area to attract key local and international clients from banks to corporates.

If Islamic finance is your thing then the Middle East could certainly be for you. Partners and associates with skill and knowledge in this area are hot property and are very much in demand in this part of the world.

Farmida Bi, a partner at DWS, says: Theres a limited number of people who are really strong at Islamic finance. All the law firms in Dubai are trying to get the best and thats why weve seen so much movement.

In May an entire Islamic finance team launched Lovells Dubai Islamic finance practice, headed by Rahail Ali. Ali and his team joined from DWS, leaving that firm with no capability in this area.

Being an expert in Islamic finance certainly pays off in Dubai and the other jurisdictions in the Middle East, so moving out to Dubai may be something for you finance bods to consider.

Apart from the constant sunshine and excellent shopping Dubai and the rest of the Middle East has a lot to offer lawyers in terms of variety and experience.

Exploring this part of the world is exciting for law firms and the lawyers they employ, providing them with experience in project based and capital markets law.

Firms in the top 50 that offer trainee secondments to the Middle East

Allen & Overy
Charles Russell
Clifford Chance
Clyde & Co
Denton Wilde Sapte
DLA Piper*
Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer
Holman Fenwick & Willan
Norton Rose
Simmons & Simmons
Trowers & Hamlins

Source: Lawyer 2B secondment survey, October 2006
* Secondment to Dubai being introduced from September 2007