Warring emotions

For many people, the war in Iraq is limited to horrific images in the media and ethical debates in the office. But for Denton Wilde Sapte partners Michael Doble and Paul Holland, the war has a more personal connection. As partners in the firm’s Middle Eastern group (MEG), they have spent a number of years in the region, and bonds between both clients and colleagues are still strong.

I initially turn up at Dentons’ Fleet Place office expecting to just meet Doble, but he arrives with Holland in tow, who ends up sticking around for the whole interview. In the event, it is Holland, despite his quiet manner, who is more prepared to speak his mind on the issues of war.

During his seven years in the region, Holland, a member of the Middle East Association in London and a member of the British Arab University Association, undertook what he describes as the “difficult and expensive” task of learning Arabic. “I wanted to not be the usual professional who comes in for two or three years and makes no attempt to know the people,” he says.

The second reason he gives is a lot more topical: “The other reason was because I did have this interest to go to Baghdad or Beirut as an international lawyer speaking Arabic. I remember saying one day that Saddam could disappear any time. He could be shot by one of his troops and there’d be a whole bunch of opportunities opening up there. Now we’re probably weeks away from that happening, although happening in a way that I hadn’t envisaged.”

Despite his reserved manner, Holland has no hesitation in voicing his opinion of the war. “My personal view is that the war should not be happening without a second UN resolution. And I think that might lead to a new world order that might be more serious than the war itself. I’d like to think that it will stop with Iraq, but I have a slight concern that it may not.”

Doble says his opinion is more “pragmatic”, although in actual fact he remains firmly on the fence. “For me, there seemed to be an inevitability from a while ago that there was going to be war in Iraq. And now that we’ve got it, I suspect my view is like a lot of Arabists: given that it’s started, let’s hope it finishes soon,” he says.

His response is not surprising. Throughout the interview his speech is slow and measured. He is very careful about what information he divulges and how it might be perceived. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that he brought Holland along.

Both lawyers seem far more reticent about discussing the possibilities that might open up in the region once the conflict ends. Clearly, the risk of sounding like a money-grabbing lawyer, at a time when people are dying, is something to be avoided.

“The question [of possibilities] is hard to address,” says Doble. “I don’t see that it will have an effect on our interest as a firm in that region – partly for the emotional reasons. Those of us who’ve lived and worked in the region feel we still have an affinity or connection with it to a greater or lesser degree. I suppose it’s inevitably going to have an impact on business opportunities in that part of the world.

“On a short-term basis, it’s obviously negative,” Holland chips in. “But if everything goes roughly according to plan, and Iraq is opened up as a country of opportunity again, then we must be well placed.”

Dentons must be hoping that this will indeed be the case. After the firm decided this month that it would disband its Denton International network and no longer pursue the option of a US tie-up with Pillsbury Winthrop, the Middle Eastern group will no doubt have an important role to play going forward.

The group, which includes offices in Abu Dhabi, Cairo, Dubai and Muscat, and to some extent Istanbul, has a client base that is fairly evenly split between local and overseas clients. The partners attribute this to the firm’s long history in the region. It first had a presence there in 1967.

The team also advises on deals in various other Middle Eastern countries, including Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait and Syria, but at this stage opening further offices appears unlikely.

Doble, who now heads up the firm’s energy practice, first went to the region in 1976. He was sent out for two weeks to help a colleague working in Dentons tie-up firm McNeill & Co. The two weeks turned into four years, with Doble returning to London in 1980. He later spent another overseas stint building the firm’s energy profile in Asia.

“I’m quite an internationally-orientated person,” he says, noting that he has a Sri Lankan wife. “That’s my disposition.” It sounds slightly odd from a man who seems as though he would sit much more easily in the ex-pat than the truly Arab community.

Holland’s connection with the region runs deeper. He left Clifford Chance, where he had trained and worked in the corporate department, because an opportunity turned up at Fox & Gibbons, which eventually merged with Dentons in 1998. “I did have an interest in things Middle Eastern, but I wasn’t an Arabist,” he says. His planned two years in Dubai turned into seven.

His fascination with the region eventually influenced his choice of practice area – he is now based in the banking and finance group. “Finance is a better route back into the Middle East from London,” he says. “But although I’m a finance lawyer, my real speciality is the Middle East.”

Which must mean that his in-tray – at least at the moment – is probably a little empty. Deals in the area have been largely suspended until the conflict is resolved, although in the meantime all the Dentons lawyers in the region are staying put.

The firm, though, is obviously hoping that things will get back on track as soon as possible. “The Middle East is very resilient,” Holland says. “Of all parts of the world, it’s an area that can pick things up and get on with it.”

No doubt the firm is counting on its lawyers to do the very same thing.
Michael Doble and Paul Holland
Denton Wilde Sapte