One step forward in the desert kingdom

Women can now practise law in Saudi Arabia, but barriers to Western firms remain 

Saudi Arabia has been often – and justly – criticised for its discriminatory practices against women. Last week the kingdom took a small but critical step towards equality after four women – Bayan Zahran, Jihan Qurban, Sarra Al Omari and Amerah Quqani – were named as the first female lawyers to gain a licence to appear in Saudi courts. The women will also be able to operate their own law firms.

Other women are apparently set to follow suit soon. The move should be welcomed by the Western firms that operate in Saudi Arabia. After all, when the Prince Sultan University introduced its first law course for women five years ago it was the catalyst for several other institutions to start courses, and for some firms to rent extra space so they could give placements to female students and still comply with laws on the segregation of men and women.

The justice ministry’s decision on licences will allow the female law students coming through those courses to progress to practise in their own right instead of working as ‘legal consultants’, unable to give clients advice.

Despite the restrictions, like much of the rest of the Middle East, Saudi is a country where many international law firms have tried to establish themselves recently. Clifford Chance transferred a local transactional team from co-operation firm Al-Jadaan into its own office earlier this year. Other firms with a presence include Allen & Overy, Dentons, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and Hogan Lovells.

But the kingdom has not always been an easy place to practise. Just this year Canadian firm Fasken Martineau and Herbert Smith Freehills cut ties with Saudi, citing strategic differences, while Trowers & Hamlins pulled out last year after a stream of departures.

And the fact that women can now join the legal profession in their own right will not resolve more fundamental issues when it comes to working in the kingdom, with rules on employing locals and the need to have a local sponsor far more of a headache.