Middle East law offices stand firm as war rages

In the last Gulf War, most western lawyers and staff in the regions closest to the fighting in Iraq were evacuated or relocated.

While this war looks set to be as long and bloody, most firms in Bahrain, which is within missile strike range of Iraq, are biding their time.

So far, only two Norton Rose trainees have decided to head home and it appears that firms have spent more time advising other businesses about repatriation than they have spent concentrating on their own contingency planning.

Carol Roberts, the recently installed head of Norton Rose’s Bahrain office, said that her main concern was anti-Western feeling, rather than the threat of missiles. She added that Londoners are more threatened by terrorism than her own staff. “I’m being more careful about where I drive my car. We’re trying to avoid areas where anti-Western demonstrations are taking place,” she said.

As westbound flights out of Bahrain are becoming increasingly rare, local Western firms – Baker & McKenzie, Norton Rose and Trowers & Hamlins – have made arrangements for staff to move to other locations in the Middle East. All three firms increased their level of vigilance last Wednesday when the Foreign & Commonwealth Office issued its recommendation that all but essential staff should leave Bahrain. Trowers’ Bahrain office went on level four alert, giving staff the option to leave if they wish. At level five, all but a skeleton staff must leave and those remaining can only volunteer to do so.

While work remains steady, some deals have slowed down because of the difficulties facing clients trying to get to key meetings. Trowers has effectively put Jordon off-limits from lawyer visits, with the result that negotiations for a local pipeline deal, using Egyptian gas, have been switched to venues in Cairo, where Trowers also has an office.

Another factor affecting business is that Middle Eastern governments are being slower to approve deals as they are preoccupied with the hostilities. One lawyer commented that the Abu Dhabi government had “unusually” failed, after several days, to sign its approval for the massive Umm Al Nar power project, when normally it is keen to issue a response immediately.

Richards Butler’s Middle East practice head Peter Mitchelmore said: “We’ve see the United Arab Emirates (UAE) suffer and that’s because of its position within the Gulf. Transactions are slowing down and more people are leaving the region.”

For the offices of Western firms in the UAE, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, it is business as usual, although extra caution is being urged because of their proximity to Iraq. Sandy Kritzalis, head of White & Case‘s Middle East practice group, said that he expects firms to operate on this basis throughout hostilities, as they did during the first Gulf War.

Martin Kitchen, a senior member of Denton Wilde Sapte’s Middle East group in London, said that all of its offices have contingency plans in the event of local Arab hostility and missile attacks.