Just days after Trowers & Hamlins announced Abdullah Mutawi as its new strategic head for the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the firm has admitted it is down to one secondee associate in its ailing Saudi Arabia office.
Amid industry speculation about the health of its entire Middle East practice, head of international Martin Amison has acknowledged that Trowers associate Abbas Khan is the firm’s only remaining lawyer at its Saudi association firm, Feras Alshawaf Law Firm, following the recent departure of senior corporate lawyer Paul Fitzgerald to Fulbright & Jaworski.
“Saudi Arabia is an extremely difficult market,” admits Amison. “We regularly act on big independent power projects in Saudi but we wouldn’t expect to run that out of the local team. They will deal on matters of local Saudi law as it applies to each transaction.”
But the fact remains that Trowers’ Saudi presence has withered dramatically over the past 12 months. Its Jeddah office closed after less than a year of business, leaving it with a single outpost in Riyadh, and Khan casting a lonely shadow as Trowers’ only representative within the local firm.
Lawyers at other international firms in the region suggest there are other problems afoot in Trowers’ Saudi practice, including an increasingly tenuous relationship with Alshawaf.
A source close to the firm has even raised the question of whether the association will be renewed when its current two-year period expires.
But Amison is adamant the association is secure.
“The nature of our relationship and of every other firm’s relationship in Saudi is that they have periods of time attached to them, but that doesn’t mean they are automatically going to be terminated,” he states. “We haven’t given notice and we aren’t planning to give notice. We fully expect to renegotiate with Alshawaf.”
Then there’s the question of how to persuade promising lawyers to move to Saudi Arabia rather than the comparatively idyllic options of Dubai or Abu Dhabi. Amison concedes that Trowers’ presence in Saudi is likely to remain a one-man-show for the forseeable future.
“We don’t have any plans to close the Saudi office, or expand it,” he says. “It’s inevitable we’ll continue to provide advice on Saudi transactions, but a lot of elements of these transactions will be serviced from outside the kingdom.”
Meanwhile, Trowers made a bold move to strengthen its Dubai and Abu Dhabi offices last week by redeploying its Bahrain second-in-command Abdullah Mutawi to the newly created head of UAE role.
The appointment lends a new strategic and commercial dimension to Trowers’ operations in the two key bases. The appointment of Mutawi was viewed by many in the region as a positive step.
“[Abdullah] is a good lawyer and very commercial, and clients like him,” Amison states. “The role we’ve created for him is very much outward-facing and a strategic role, and aimed at bringing more business into our UAE practice.”
Trowers is also eager to shed its ’colonial’ image in the region, and Mutawi provides a local face for the firm which it hopes will translate into greater credibility.
“He’s an Arab and has Arab credentials,” says Amison. “The client base over the longer term has moved from being mainly foreign investors to a much more local client base. So it makes sense to have an Arab in this position.”
Elsewhere in the region, the firm’s offices in Cairo and Bahrain were forced to close temporarily earlier this year due to political turmoil in the region, and sources in Egypt now describe Trowers as “invisible” on major deals.
Even in the UAE the industry seems unconvinced by Trowers’ presence, particularly since the influx of larger UK and US firms hungry for a slice of the action.
“Trowers used to be a player in the region before the bigger international firms had the footprint they have now,” a Dubai-based partner at a global law firm comments. “But they’re a victim of stagnation. They haven’t merged or grown bigger, and they haven’t sought to distinguish themselves from other firms. We simply don’t hear much about Trowers & Hamlins: they don’t have much of a presence here.”
And therein lies the challenge.