Revealed: the gender pay gulf dividing UAE counsel

Gulf-based male in-house lawyers can earn twice as much as their female counterparts, with top-earning men pocketing as much as £34,000 each month, according to a recent survey conducted by Elizabeth Williams Search.

Top-end remuneration packages for male counsel with 12-15 years’ PQE in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries is up to UAED200,000 (£34,080) per month, but this falls to less than half that for their female counterparts.

The trend continues at the more junior end, with female in-house counsel making up to UAED73,400 and male in-housers UAED140,000.

However, a head of legal at a major Dubai-based multinational corporation tells The Lawyer that, while there may be a gender pay gap between international and local companies, his employer would not differentiate on the basis of gender.

“I’m quite surprised to see that pay gap, but you might find a distinction between multinational and local companies, with the former likely to replicate employment practices in their home jurisdictions,” he says.

DLA Piper Middle East CSR manager Wafa Tarnowska, who has led a number of Arab female empowerment initiatives, says equal pay structures were de rigeur are international private practices.

However, she points out that, while the majority of university graduates in the Emirati community are now female, few of these women are achieving senior legal positions.

“Seventy per cent of ­university graduates are women, but so much emphasis is put on being good wives and mothers that in the end they lose the advantage they started with,” says ­Tarnowska.

In the Arab world we still haven’t put in good structures for women to succeed. There are no good crèches – they rely on their families – and maternity policy in the UAE [United Arab ­Emirates] isn’t up to ­international standards.”

Fewer women responded to the survey than men (28 per cent of respondents were female in contrast with the 72 per cent who were male), but the male-dominated sample may be reflective
of the composition of the legal sector in the region.

For example, there are major restrictions on women practising law at all in jurisdictions such as Saudi Arabia.

The research also revealed that, despite the economic slowdown in Dubai seeing many lose their jobs there, the vast majority of Gulf-based in-house counsel will not consider relocating to either Saudi or Kuwait.

Only 10 per cent of all GCC counsel surveyed would consider working in Kuwait and 13 per cent in Saudi, in contrast with Oman (36 per cent), Qatar (40 per cent), Bahrain (44 per cent), Abu Dhabi (72 per cent) and Dubai (89 per cent).

“Dubai and Abu Dhabi have developed quickly and are quite easy places to live,” says Elizabeth Williams of Elizabeth Williams Search. “There are lots of Westerners, you can drink alcohol and you can move around at will. In Saudi that’s not the case. Women can’t drive and quite often getting in and out of there is difficult as a single woman. The sense I get is that people who enjoy Kuwait are ­families with a tight-knit circle of expat friends. Single people tend not to like it.”

In what appears to reflect the challenges of attracting lawyers to work in Kuwait, average remuneration there is UAED93,100, in contrast with UAED78,300 in Dubai. However, the sample of Kuwaiti counsel in the research is small, accounting for just 4 per cent of all respondents, in contrast with 56 per cent from Dubai.

Longstanding Kuwait-based lawyer David Pfeiffer, who is head of SNR Denton’s office in the country, says he regularly receives CVs from lawyers based elsewhere in the Gulf, but he points out that salaries are falling and the concept of commercially driven ­general counsel as it is understood elsewhere does not really apply in Kuwait.

The Dubai-based in-houser is adamant that no sum of money would see him leave Dubai for a job elsewhere in the region.

“Dubai’s unique in the ­Middle East,” he insists. “It doesn’t offer what you might expect in terms of cultural life compared with London or New York, but it’s still special in this part of the world. I don’t think Kuwait’s geared up for expats, it’s more focused on local trade and isn’t a hub like Dubai.

“I’ve been to Saudi on a few occasions and there’s absolutely no way I’d go and work there, even if somebody offered to triple my salary.”

The survey covered 274 in-house lawyers across the GCC.