Middle East Special Report: The main event

The Middle East has become a hot spot for Western law firms over the past few years, and in recognition of this The Lawyer is hosting its inaugural Business Development in the Middle East Conference in April this year. Tom Phillips sets the scene…


Middle East Special Report: The main event Lawyers in the Middle East had better believe it – they are involved in a full-on fight for work, and Dubai is hosting the main event.

After round one in 2008, when hundreds of lawyers set up shop in the region, it is ­seconds out, round two, and a scrap for work in a saturated market.

Last year gangs of lawyers from UK and international firms joined the fray and now, with the recession in full swing back home, they have to prove their mettle to win the lucrative business. With that in mind, in April 2009 The Lawyer is running the largest conference it has ever held in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), featuring speakers from every corner of the legal market.

The Business Development in the Middle East Conference will feature speakers from all the Middle East heads at magic circle firms, general counsel from some of the biggest companies in the UAE and managing partners from all of the established domestic firms in the region.

Philip Weems, managing partner at King & Spalding in the Middle East, operates offices in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Riyadh.

“This conference is more significant now than it’s ever been because of the ­crisis we’re facing,” says Weems. “Building relationships is even more important in the Middle East [than in other markets]. ­Relationships between firms and their clients, and between firms themselves, are still the most important thing here. This is because of the type of ­personalities of the people involved. It takes more time to forge a relationship with ­people in Dubai.

“The country’s got an overwhelming amount of lawyers, but it should be able to sustain it. The question is, are there enough transactions? At the moment there aren’t, and there are many more lawyers than there are transactions to go around.”

The bright lights of Dubai snared the highest number of contenders, real estate being the biggest draw. But the developers, while not down and out, have certainly taken a kicking after bank loans dried up, and now property lawyers find themselves in a deflated market.

Meanwhile, firms in Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have taken hits in banking and finance, but they are still busying ­themselves with their energy practices and, in Saudi especially, feeling the benefits of a more conservative approach to financial instruments.

It is clear that the recession has heated up an already white-hot UAE legal market, and 2009 will sort the stronger, leaner and better-resourced firms from those that ­simply joined the bandwagon.

Those helping to lay down the rules of engagement upon the new arrivals at The Lawyer’s conference include legal heads from Abu Dhabi National Energy Company, Al-Jazeera, Barclays Capital, Dubai ­Aerospace Enterprise, Jumeirah Group and Nakheel. Meanwhile, a panel of managing partners from the largest domestic law firms (see box) will explain the process of forming alliances and partnerships from the ­indigenous firms’ perspective.

Mansoor Malik, managing partner at Al Busaidy Mansoor Jamal & Co, will take part in the panel to share his knowledge of the Oman market. Although more stable than its UAE cousins’, Malik says his market has still felt the effects of the recession and so he has been keeping a close eye on developments
in Dubai.

“I think the Dubai market is saturated with lawyers, with the level of activity reduced and real estate nearly at a standstill,” says Malik. “The magic circle and ­established ­international firms are very experienced in this region, but they’ll become increasingly competitive. We’ll discuss how these firms can work more closely with local lawyers and law firms.”

EIGHT TOP MIDDLE EAST FIRMS

Firm: Al Busaidy Mansoor Jamal & Co
Location: Oman
Managing partner: Mansoor Jamal Malik
Number of lawyers: 34

Firm: Afridi & Angell
Locations: Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah
Managing partner: Amjad Ali Khan
Number of lawyers: 35

Firm: Al-Sarraf & Al-Ruwayeh
Locations: Bahrain, Kuwait
Managing partner: Ahmed Barakat
Number of lawyers: 27
Firm: Al Tamimi & Company
Locations: Abu Dhabi, ­Baghdad, Dubai, Qatar, Riyadh, Sharjah
Managing partner: Hoda Barakat
Number of lawyers: 140

Firm: Bin Shabib & Associates
Locations: Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ras Al Khaimah, Sharjah
Managing partner: Jimmy Haoula
Number of lawyers: 31

Firm: Emirates Advocates
Locations: Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Dubai Internet City, Jebel Ali Free Zone, Sharjah
Managing partner: Hamad Mohammad Al-Mehairi
Number of lawyers: 53

Firm: Hadef & Partners
Locations: Abu Dubai, Dubai
Managing partner: Dr Faraj Ahnish
Number of lawyers: 80

Firm: Quays H Zu’bi Attorneys & Legal Consultants
Location: Dubai
Managing partner: Quays H Zu’bi
Number of lawyers: 14