As Qatar spends billions gearing up for the World Cup and a new emir orders full-scale modernisation, the case for a practice in Doha looks compelling
Earlier this year the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, stepped down from the throne and handed power to his son, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.
The new emir promptly replaced long-time prime minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani (popularly known as HBJ) with the minister for internal affairs, Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa al-Thani. He has spent the past six months meeting foreign leaders and speaking at forums such as the United Nations, affirming Qatar’s commitment to the rule of law and social reform.
The change comes in the midst of a massive physical transformation of Qatar – and not just as a result of the 2022 FIFA World Cup – although that has grabbed the world’s attention. There are other infrastructure developments going on. A Deloitte report published in July said the country was planning to spend $140bn on transport infrastructure and another $200bn on construction projects over the next five years.
The two firms say client demand was behind their expansion into Qatar. Like many other international firms, they had been present in the Middle East for some time but clients had been giving strong hints about the necessity of having a Doha office.
Charles Russell’s Qatar head, Simon Green, who has relocated from Bahrain to lead the office, says: “We’re leveraging off what’s widely recognised as a very successful practice that Charles Russell has developed in the Middle East.”
Green says Charles Russell’s clients, particularly those operating in real estate and infrastructure development, were telling the firm it could pick up more work if it had an office in Qatar.
Addleshaw Goddard Qatar head Hussein Damirji, who moved to the firm from Patton Boggs this year to launch the Doha office, agrees that it is essential for a firm that wants to have a true Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) presence to be in Doha.
“We’ve had a number of appointments and work throughout the region because of having the Doha office,” says Damirji, explaining that Addleshaws is developing a “collaborative” approach with its Dubai and new Oman office.
Both firms are planning to develop a full-service offering in Qatar, although the initial offering is more limited. Green’s practice focuses on real estate development, which he says sets the firm apart from its rivals. “There aren’t that many partners in real estate development here on the ground,” he explains.
“My remit as head of office isn’t just to deal with the real estate and construction team, it’s also to build a more general full-service practice. Until we’ve got the workflow coming through that can justify that, we’ve got the Bahrain office, which is a full-service operation.”
Addleshaws’ offering has an initial focus on private client and family office work – Damirji’s speciality – along with banking and finance, brought by Dentons lateral hire Martin Brown. The firm is building the rest of its presence with a team of five associates who together can offer advice on issues such as Islamic finance, employment, commercial and construction law.
Full service has also been the approach for Pinsent Masons, which inherited an office in Qatar through the McGrigors merger last year. Office managing partner James Elwen says the Doha base has “grown rapidly” since the combination.
Pinsents has a sector-focused approach to its services, encompassing infrastructure, energy and advanced manufacturing. Elwen says these fit the type of work being generated in Qatar. “That’s essential where the main bulk of the work is for international companies building infrastructure and also a lot of local companies – and indeed the government itself,” he notes.
The 2022 World Cup forms part of the government’s ‘National Vision 2030’, which is designed to set out how Qatar will develop in the next 15 years or so. The strategy was put in place by the current emir’s father, and Sheikh Tamim al-Thani shows no sign of abandoning it.
“As far as Qatar’s concerned, the World Cup’s a staging post en route to the vision they have for 2030 and beyond,” says Elwen. “There’s a massive programme for state infrastructure development – not just the buildings but also the apparatus of government.”
Damirji says the new government is aware of what it needs to do to continue development. “They’ve built up and transformed the country in a very short space of time,” he points out, suggesting that those who really want to see the change should look at pictures of Doha 30 years ago. Where ultra-modern skyscrapers now stand, there was just desert; the population of Qatar has ballooned in the same period from around 200,000 to more than 2 million today. As a result, the vision to build a modern Qatar involves significant investment in infrastructure such as hospitals, schools and transport systems.
“It’s only natural that Qatar is a destination for a lot of firms,” comments Al Tamimi & Company’s Qatar head Mohamed Khodeir.
The government is also working to improve the regulatory infrastructure, he adds. “Initiatives are being taken to change the commercial companies regime and the capital markets regime, to facilitate processes and expand them.”
Elwen says the new regime will not deviate significantly from the plan laid out by the old one, although there are minor changes.
“There’s been a slight change in emphasis. There’s more of a focus on what’s happening within Qatar rather than the type of marquee investments that were being made overseas. There’s an awful lot they need to do here,” he says.
“It’s been a very clear vision from the word go. What needs to be done won’t change effectively. There may well be some timetable changes for the major projects to make sure the ones that need to be done by a particular deadline do get done.”
One issue that may well have an impact on law firms operating in Qatar, as well as their clients, is the process of ‘Qatarisation’ – encouraging organisations to employ Qatari nationals rather than foreigners, and enhancing the skills of the local population.
“The key to maintaining good relationships with clients and understanding viability of the work is building relationships with the Qataris themselves,” notes Elwen.
“Relationships are still critical here. Trust is critical,” says Damirji.
Khodeir agrees that newcomers to the market should make a real
effort to understand the culture and way of working. “There are challenges that investors need to be
realistic about,” he adds.
The international firms are keen to employ local lawyers, or at the very least a number of Arabic speakers. Green says Charles Russell wants to extend its Bahrain strategy (of offering English training contracts to local graduates) to Qataris. The scheme helps the young lawyers to qualify as solicitors, and return to work in their own jurisdiction.
International firms in Qatar, however, are still restricted from appearing in court. Elwen says this will help maintain a strong local legal market, especially with the amount of construction work going on at present.
“In terms of court-based litigation, it’s only the local firms that can really do that. Even in the large infrastructure projects, it’s court-based disputes,” he notes.
The sheer volume of work planned for Qatar over the next 16 years will continue to be a boon to the legal market, and those already there think there are plentiful opportunities for firms to thrive.
“The market in general has space for the best to continue and survive. Those who take the right steps in terms of meeting their clients’ needs and being realistic about client expectations will have space to grow,” says Al Tamimi’s Khodeir.
Firms are also trying to expand the breadth of services they offer. Al Tamimi’s recent launch of a sports law practice, which will operate across the GCC, is centred in Qatar to take advantage of the World Cup and the other developments.
The likelihood of more incomers entering a market that some think is now over-lawyered seems high, although it is also possible that some firms already present will find the going too tough and close down.
But with Qatar’s economy the strongest in the world and the young emir demonstrating his desire to continue his country’s rapid progression, prospects in general seem extremely positive.
“Are we optimistic?” asks Damirji. “Yes – I think there’s a great future for Qatar.”
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Key figures: Qatar
Life expectancy at birth: 78
Source: World Bank, Qatar Statistics Authority