Six of the best

If during 2008 many firms equated the Middle East with bulking up a Dubai office with lawyers from London and New York, in 2009 there has been a paradigm shift. This shift consists of an increased focus on other Middle East and North Africa (Mena) markets and recruitment from within the region.

Just as in mature markets, the recession means that firms can be more demanding in terms of the skill sets and experience of those they hire. So they are increasingly attracted towards those with the added value of local connections and cultural nous. Second, interest in markets such as the United Arab Emirates capital Abu Dhabi, where there is more call for government advice, and Riyadh, where there are less expats, means that clients require Arabic speakers.

Here we profile six rising stars at international law firms in the Middle East who are representative of this changing environment. Many of them are fluent Arabic speakers and are born and/or educated in the region. Between them they cover corporate, banking and Islamic finance, as well as management and business development positions.

Watch this space.

Sahia Ahmad, corporate partner in Reed Smith’s Dubai office

Sahia Ahmad joined Reed Smith in 2007 to work in the firm’s Dubai office. Her previous job was as general counsel at Dubai World, where she worked for four years. She has since built up a profitable team of 20 lawyers.

Her role has included advising senior management on strategy and management of Dubai and the Middle East region in general.

Educated in Dubai and London, she is one of the few Emirati female lawyers to become a partner at an ­international law firm and is considered to be very well connected by her peers.

Her client list is among the best. Over the past six to 12 months she has brought in new business from Arabian Global Investments, Dubai Golf City, Dubai Mercantile Exchange, her former employer Dubai World, Millennium Private Equity and Tameer.

Fares Al-Hejailan, associate and co-head of Freshfields’ Riyadh office, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer/Law firm of Fares Al-Hejailan

When Freshfields looked for a Saudi sponsor in Riyadh last year, it picked Fares Al-Hejailan. He is the young, UK-educated son of Salah Al-Hejailan, with whom the firm had an informal professional relationship, and “operates ­fluently in two languages and two legal systems”, according to one Freshfields partner.

Based in Riyadh, Al-Hejailan runs the local office ­together with Freshfields partner Bob Charlton. He concentrates on financial services and corporate work for clients ­including Saudi American Bank and Nomura. On the latter he has advised on Saudi aspects of its acquisition of Lehman ­Brothers’ Middle East business.

His intimate knowledge of the Saudi market and with senior sharia board members means that he is able to ­navigate Freshfields through the multiple regulatory ­entities involved in transactions in the kingdom.

Zina Haj-Hasan, Mena region manager, Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP)

BLP has made a very wise move in hiring Zina Haj-Hasan. A Jordanian-Tunisian with a background in communication and conflict resolution, she was hired in 2008 as part of international director Jonathan Taylor’s team to spearhead the firm’s Middle East strategy. She was successful in ­helping set up the Abu Dhabi office this January (its first outpost in the region), which represented something of a volte face in the firm’s traditionally conservative approach to ­international expansion. She is also charged with ­expanding its Middle East network of referral firms beyond its current spread of 18 Arabic-speaking countries.

Her success is based upon solid professional and ­academic experience, but also a personal ability to negotiate cultural differences with élan. She is fluent in Arabic, English and French. As part of her PhD in Sociolinguistics she analysed the persuasive power of speeches made by Yasser Arafat and King Hussein of Jordan to convince the US public. Following this she went into an academic career, teaching at Georgetown University, the University of Jordan and the Jordan Institute of Diplomacy on conflict resolution, negotiation skills and cross-cultural communication. She has also trained those going out to Abu Dhabi to work for the firm on cross-cultural communication.

Qudeer Latif, Islamic finance ­partner, Clifford Chance

Qudeer Latif is an Islamic finance lawyer who was made up in 2008. His experience includes advising on Islamic finance across project finance, corporate finance, acquisition finance, asset finance, real estate, capital markets and ­structured products.

In a market dominated by a small number of players such as Allen & Overy, Lovells and Norton Rose, Latif has managed to raise the profile of his practice significantly.

He has won mandates on a number of large and high-­profile transactions, including the $9.8bn (£6.6bn) Rabigh project financing in Saudi Arabia (the first Islamic project financing in the country), the $3.5bn (£2.37bn) sukuk- al-musharaka for DP World (issued for financing the ­acquisition of P&O) and the $2.5bn (£1.67bn) financing for the purchase of Chelsea Barracks in the UK from the ­Ministry of Defence.

Ayman Khaleq, Islamic finance partner, Vinson & Elkins

Ayman Khaleq is one of six founding partners of Vinson’s Middle East practice, which covers Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The former office opened last year and the latter in 2003. They now have 19 fee-earners covering energy and infrastructure, finance and M&A and private equity.

Although Vinson’s energy brand has been built out of its Texan oil and gas practice, the firm also advises on upstream and downstream and renewables work in the Middle East.

Khaleq has been closely involved in devising the firm’s Gulf strategy, alongside partner Jim Knight and Lewis Jones, managing partner of the Dubai office. The three-year plan includes headcount growth and expansion into Saudi is also being discussed.
Khaleq’s own practice focuses on Islamic finance and sharia-compliant real estate, infrastructure, private equity and equity funds, as well as structured products.

Clients include Al-Futtaim Capital (part of the Al-Futtaim Group), which he advised in connection with the ­structuring and documentation of Al-Futtaim Mena Real Estate ­Development Fund and Al-Futtaim Mena Real Estate ­Shariah Development Fund. He also represented NBK Capital and GSC Corporation in connection with the ­structuring and documentation of NBK Capital.

Salman Al-Sudairi,banking and project finance associate, Latham & Watkins

A Saudi national and dual Saudi/US-qualified lawyer, Salman Al-Sudairi has become something of a confidant to senior management on Latham’s Middle East strategy as a result of his contacts and regional knowledge.

In a period in which Latham has increased significantly its Gulf presence, with launches in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Doha, this is the first time that an associate has been in such close dialogue with the top executive.

Riyadh is tipped to be the destination for 2009 and due to local bar rules foreign firms may only practise with a local sponsor. Having Al-Sudairi on board helps the firm avoid the problems of a cultural and strategic misfit that has been the downfall of so many alliances, as he is knowledgeable as to Latham’s professional culture. He could, then, become the firm’s local sponsor.

“There’s no doubt that if Latham & Watkins goes into Saudi, we’ll go with Salman at our side,” said one senior manager.

Al-Sudairi is a banking lawyer who represents lenders and borrowers in sophisticated lending, project finance and energy and cross-border transactions. Currently he is on ­secondment to Goldman Sachs in New York for the next six months, advising on leveraged finance and banking. In the Middle East he has advised the Saudi Electricity Company in connection with a $1.6bn (£1.08bn) structured term loan facility and BNP Paribas in establishing a branch in Saudi Arabia.