Shifting sands

As firms’ focus moves to Dubai, Simmons says Abu Dhabi base is secure

Dubai

Simmons & Simmons is standing by the strength of its Abu Dhabi office and says it has no plans to go the way of Hogan Lovells and shut its Abu Dhabi base. But there are widespread expectations on the ground in the Middle East that more firms will follow Hogan Lovells’ lead.

Abu Dhabi has suffered as a hub since the rise of Dubai as a stronger financial centre, with Norton Rose and Simmons both seeing gradual attrition in the city, and there is frequent talk of partners at UK firms returning to London or transferring to another office in the region. Simmons made some of its Abu Dhabi and Dubai lawyers and back-office staff redundant at the start of 2012, and is said by people on the ground to be struggling to keep up with Middle East competitors.

Last week’s news that Simmons’ Abu Dhabi construction and disputes partner Adrian Cole was joining King & Spalding was the latest step in what has been a tough journey for the firm in the Middle East, although it says it is planning to grow its disputes practice in the region.

United Arab Emirates managing partner Paul Simpson, a finance specialist, left in April 2010 and resurfaced last year at K&L Gates, while another finance partner, Samer Eido in Doha, left Simmons for Allen & Overy (A&O) in 2011.
Meanwhile, local sources still talk about the defection of Simmons’ Abu Dhabi head Ibrahim Mubaydeen to A&O in 2007, even though it is practically ancient history.
One former Simmons partner points out that only recently the firm’s strategy was to invest in the Middle East, but those on the ground at rivals see the firm’s practice in far less positive light.
Word on the street is that there is likely to be a high-profile UK firm shuttering its Abu Dhabi base soon.
With firms shifting their focus to growing hubs such as Dubai and the Saudi cities of Riyadh and Jeddah, we may be on the cusp of a radical overhaul of the Middle East legal market.