HR Focus: Money talks on Middle East pioneer trail

The Middle East has traditionally been a controversial destination for lawyers to be posted to, but the region is emerging as something of a hotspot in the current economic climate.

Hussein El-Zein, who runs Middle East recruitment at Taylor Root, says that since the credit crunch the recruitment market has changed, triggering a new wave of ‘money-hungry’ UK banking, finance and construction lawyers keen to move to where the riches are.

And with deals floundering in mature markets, firms have become only too happy to play along.

“It clearly makes sense to send people where the work is,” said Allen & Overy‘s United Arab Emirates (UAE) managing partner Simon Roderick (as reported in The Lawyer, 7 April), when drumming up reinforcements from London and Amsterdam for its UAE offices.

Trowers & Hamlins recently moved its former head of HR Malcolm Lewis to the Middle East full-time as its first-ever international head of HR (as reported on www.thelawyer.com, 31 March).

One of Lewis’ initial briefs will be to find 12 new recruits for Trowers’ burgeoning Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Cairo and Dubai offices, which are currently home to 90 lawyers following growth of between 20 and 60 per cent over the past four years.

But recruiting to the Middle East can present some particular challenges.

“There’s a limited supply of people who are inclined to move from London, just because it’s out of their comfort zone,” says Lewis. “You have to hire people who have a certain pioneering spirit. A lot of the people have heard of Dubai and have a slight case of stars in their eyes, but it requires people to have researched it and to know what they would be walking into.”

Unsurprisingly, for those who have done their research, human rights, democracy and security issues do not usually figure at all on the agenda of candidates.

“The first thing they want to talk about is money, number two is the weather, and number three the quality of work,” says El-Zein. “Dubai has sold itself – people know where they’re going.

“But it’s more difficult when you try to get them to go to other jurisdictions,” he adds. “For a western lawyer it is going to be very difficult to live in Riyadh, particularly if you are a woman.”

El-Zein says he has not had a single female Caucasian English lawyer looking to relocate to Riyadh, although British Muslim women have been interested.

And while the traditional trading hubs of the UAE are vastly more liberal and westernised than Saudi Arabia, homosexual sex, for example, is punishable by imprisonment in the UAE.

Nevertheless, while the life of gay lawyers in Dubai will be more restricted than their heterosexual counterparts, it is not impossible.

“Certainly there are gay people here [in our office],” says Lewis, “but they live within the law.”

Ultimately, he does not think that it is the role of international law firms to effect political and social change.

“You’re here in a foreign country and have to follow the law. If that causes issues for people and organisations they should think quite carefully about whether they should come here,” Lewis says.