For lesbian and gay lawyers, a move to the Gulf, where homosexuality is illegal, is not an easy choice. What is it like to live and work in the region and what role do law firms play in ensuring the welfare of their staff?
The Middle East is the place to be – and for several very good reasons. As Andrew*, a Dubai-based ;senior member of support staff at a top-40 UK firm, says: “I like the people, I like the place, I like the culture. The sun shines 364 days of the year, I can buy 200 fags for a tenner, fill up my car very cheaply and I’m not paying any tax.”
It is not all easy living though. Andrew may be yet another convert to the joys of the Gulf, but he also happens to be a gay man living in a country where homosexuality is illegal and carries severe penalties (see box).
Andrew says there is “complete acceptance” of his sexuality among his colleagues, pointing to a strong diversity record at his firm.
“Homosexuality is tolerated provided people don’t go up and down the street with a rainbow banner,” he argues.
It is often said that homophobia in the Gulf needs to be understood within a wider socially conservative context. Heterosexual couples also have to conform to local restrictions on displays of public affection or cohabitation. But there is a vital difference. For homosexuals, the long arm of Emirati law reaches further into private space.
“Even trying to communicate over the internet is very difficult because there’s the feeling that forums used by gays and lesbians are infiltrated by people from the Criminal Investigation Department,” says Elizabeth*, a gay female associate who recently moved out to the emirate. “I’ve been to a couple of parties, but everyone’s still quite cautious. You have to be quite careful about touching anybody, looking too obvious.”
But with the UK economy skidding to a halt, more gay and lesbian staff may be faced with a tough choice between moving out to the Gulf or being without a job back home. At the same time, others want to move to the region but feel they lack the support structures.
But does this mean firms are selling their gay and lesbian staff short? “At certain firms when you’re ‘asked’ to go to the Gulf, you’re being told to do so,” says Daniel Winterfeldt, partner at the London office of Simmons & Simmons and head of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) law firm network Interlaw. “If someone said they were uncomfortable because of issues of legality, wellbeing or happiness, we wouldn’t force them.”
Andrew agrees, pointing out that a gay or lesbian employee who did not want to be relocated to the Gulf would not lose their job.
“First of all we’d try to persuade them that their sexuality is irrelevant,” he explains. “Second, since the Gulf War we’ve taken the view that if they didn’t want to go to the Gulf we wouldn’t make them.”
All the firms The Lawyer spoke with emphasised the importance of respecting local laws and customs. “It’s important that firms don’t break the law and respect the culture,” agrees Winterfeldt.
This line is echoed elsewhere by a partner at another Western firm in Riyadh: “My advice to any [gay or lesbian] at a law firm with a diversity policy is, ‘We welcome you, but you must be respectful of local laws.’”
Law firms’ concern with upholding local regulations is understandable: legality is, after all, part of their raison d’etre. But an equally important component of their DNA is ensuring they have the best people to do the job in hand. This is the thinking behind the modish support for diversity policies. It is not just about looking good to the outside world, it makes good business sense.
Ashley Young, who runs Allen & Overy’s LGBT support network A&Out, says: “The challenge for any firm or business is getting talented staff to where they’re most needed.”
But there is evidence that diversity policies have failed to accompany the rush to tap lucrative Gulf markets. Some law firms were vague about how they would support gay and lesbian staff wishing to relocate with their partners, for example, or point out that staff always face cultural issues when moving abroad. But this is disingenuous. Given the potential severity of the legal penalties in Gulf countries, this is a way of avoiding the issue.
“I don’t think my firm’s policy on diversity has caught up because there’s no such thing out here as being in a network – from that point of view you’re pretty much on your own. I don’t think it’s intentional. I think they’ve just not quite thought it through,” says Elizabeth.
Elizabeth’s firm is recognised as having a good record on diversity and in London she was part of an LGBT network. In Dubai, though, she has gone back into the closet.
“In the office you don’t talk about it,” she explains. “I’d be here for a while before going down that route, given the severity of what would happen. The suppression of a significant part of your identity can be quite difficult.”
Winterfeldt says firms tread a fine line when trying to support gay and lesbian staff in the Gulf.
“Promotion of homosexuality is illegal in the region,” he adds. “If someone would reach out to us we’d be open to that, but as far as establishing branches goes, that we wouldn’t be able to do.”
With homosexuality perceived as being a taboo subject in some law firm offices, it is more likely that gay and lesbian staff will seek out support in more risky environments such as online chat forums. Nevertheless, Elizabeth is confident that her firm would support her should she come into difficulty.
“I do have full faith that, assuming I hadn’t behaved shockingly, the firm would stand by me,” she says.
A Saudi-based partner at another firm argues that it is not imperative for a gay or lesbian employee to go to the Gulf to further their career.
“Islamic finance practitioners, [for example], can operate from London,” says the partner. “It’s an opportunity to further careers in a sympathetic environment. When you come up against a law you have to follow it. We don’t have any choice. When in Saudi I don’t drink alcohol. I don’t agree with it, but I respect the law.”
But the partner may be missing the point. For some a move to the Gulf is seen as the only way of career progression in a tough economic climate. Also, in equating a teetotal lifestyle choice with sexuality – something that is integral to an individual’s identity – he is misunderstanding the seriousness of the predicament gay and lesbian staff face.
Elizabeth was not in any way forced to go to Dubai: when asked to do so she did her own research and made what she believes to be a positive career choice. And she chose not to raise the issue of her sexuality with her managing partner. “As a single person I don’t think it’s a legitimate reason in itself not to go,” she argues.
THE LAW ON HOMOSEXUALITY IN THE GULF
Gulf countries have laws prohibiting public displays of affection, affecting both heterosexual and homosexual couples. In Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates homosexual sex between men is punishable by death, while all sexual relations outside of marriage are also illegal.
However, it is not known how frequently the death sentence
Source: International Lesbian and Gay Association
What should firms do to help their staff make safe choices about whether to move or not? Simmons & Simmons provides cultural awareness training, which is provided by an external trainer. The situation at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer is similar. “People going on secondments to anywhere in the world receive the appropriate cultural briefing,” explains a spokesperson. “We don’t want to comment on what we would or wouldn’t do in the Middle East.”
“The best thing my firm could do would be to have a closed list,” says Elizabeth of support in the Gulf. “Because it can’t support employees openly, it would need to find a way where you could get buy-in at quite a high level. You need a partner or champion of the issue running that closed list, both in terms of managing the firm’s own risk profile and reputation and your welfare.”
Can international law firms extend their role to influence local values and laws? Is it even desirable to do so? One local partner at a firm with a diversity policy says his firm has to be very careful. “If we had an opportunity to give our views on homosexuality, I’m sure we’d give them,” he says. “But I don’t think you go banging on the door of the Ministry of the Interior.”
The need for businesses to act with sensitivity when operating abroad is compounded in the Middle East by the long history of Western political and economic domination. Any active stance by international business on the matter is likely to be interpreted as an unwelcome attempt at foreign influence – something that would generate a backlash.
Winterfeldt clarifies the point. “You don’t have a right to have an office in the Middle East,” he insists. “If you want to take a stance, you don’t open up there.”
But law firms do not tend to take such a stance. Instead they have taken a pragmatic rather than an ideological approach to international expansion, with many doing business in places such as China or South Africa during apartheid, despite international outcries.
As more firms add the Middle East to their international networks, it is imperative that they support the staff that are working hard to make them profitable entities. It could not be more timely, then, that Interlaw is seeking to get a discussion going about the issues facing its international members and learn from best practice in other service sectors with a meeting in November.
Law firm management teams must take note – if they do not, sooner or later authorities responding to an interplay of domestic religious lobbies and political pressures may look for a scapegoat. And if it comes to a gay or lesbian law firm employee being targeted, will a management team that talks bar diversity put its money where its mouth is?
*Not their real names