Wellspring of opportunity

More than ever, the Middle East region is attracting Australian lawyers looking to expand their horizons.

The Middle East’s fast-growing business centres are flocking into what was once an exclusive playground for financial stalwarts such as Tokyo, London and New York. Add in its convenience as a gateway to the emerging markets of India and Africa and the opportunities of the Middle East shimmer.

In places like Dubai, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, the promise of opportunity has proven more than an enticing mirage, while rising stars like Almaty in Kazakhstan and Doha in Qatar are staking their claim as hubs for big business.

Appetite for experts

The demand for lawyers in the Middle East has gone from strength to strength over the past 15 years, according to Taylor Root Partner, Shane Morton.

“When Taylor Root first opened up over here it was boom time around the world, in Dubai and the wider Middle East as firms and companies were trying to build and grow themselves in the region,” Mr Morton says.

“Taylor Root had worked in the region for six to seven years prior to that when it hadn’t been as essential to have people on the ground as it is now.”

Mr Morton, who is based in Dubai, moved from the UK in 2007 to establish and run the Taylor Root Dubai office.

He recruits lawyers at all levels across the region. It is now normal for international players to base themselves ‘on the ground’ or partner with local outfits there.

DLA Piper finance partner Debbie Barbour has spent much of her 24-year career practising in the region. Based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Australianborn lawyer recalls a time when projects in the Middle East were always serviced from firm offices in London or New York.

“Prior to 2002 you didn’t need to be ‘on the ground’ to do projects here because everyone was based in UK law firms. Only a couple of firms had opened offices in the Middle East and were starting to expand,” Ms Barbour says.

Banks, in particular, used to initiate and service deals in the UK but this has shifted in the past 15 years, she explains.

“2002 was the year of transition – I spent a lot of time on a plane going back to London from Dubai to negotiate deals; when I came back in 2008 that had changed. And in 2004, a lot of law firms had started to move out to this region,” she says.

Locally-based services also offer practical benefits for clients. However, there may be “small pockets of highly technical law which might be done with a firm out of London”, Ms Barbour adds.

“Clients today would be reluctant, because of time difference and working days, to use lawyers in the UK,” she says.

Emerging markets

According to Mr Morton, economic hubs in the Middle East have matured in their own right and big businesses are acting with more confidence and drawing on local knowledge to do so.

“As the local economies here mature and grow, and firms have a more sensible, mature view as to what they are doing in the region, firms and companies know what they want to achieve and what staffing levels they need to achieve it,” he says.

From 2011 to 2015, markets in the region enjoyed solid growth and development. Mr Morton expects this to remain stable despite recent signs of caution in response to the low price of oil.

“One of the big drivers here is the oil price side of things. With things dropping off considerably, that’s made business a little more cautious, specifically in the oil and gas industries,” he says. “Most people expect oil prices will work their way up again over the next year or so. There’s a lot of varied government spending, although things have slowed a little, but I think we should see oil prices moving up.”

Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh, was ranked as one of the most improved financial centres in the world by Business Insider Australia last year, surging 55 places from its position on the list in 2010. Boasting the largest reserves of oil in the world, low oil prices have affected the kingdom’s economy in recent months.

According to Mr Morton, the Middle East is a fertile bed for emerging markets, backed by the more traditional oil and gas resources sector. He points to international events on the horizon that will see the region enjoy continued business activity.

“Dubai, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, these places are looking to diversify their economies for the future beyond oil and gas revenue. All the economies here are looking to grow and diversify,” he says.

The 2020 World Expo to be hosted in Dubai and Qatar’s FIFA World Cup in 2022 will bring a slew of infrastructure opportunities over the next few years.

“The World Expo will bring countries from around the world with huge conference stadiums. For somewhere like Dubai, which is business-trade-hub oriented, this will be a big opportunity to sell itself. A lot will go on in the next three to four years,” he says.

The dynamic nature of the region’s many different markets also means certain expertise is better suited to certain countries.

“Places like Abu Dahbi, Qatar, Saudi Arabia are quite focused on their own markets and recruitment markets are related to their own markets specific to what’s going on in their country.

“The work you would do in places like Oman and Bahrain will be related to those locations. Dubai is very different in that it will be related to the whole region,” Mr Morton says.

He adds that some practice areas are more translatable than others.

“The expertise of construction and project lawyers, for example, can cross markets and waters. Construction drives most markets in the region.”

According to Ms Barbour, some emerging sectors in the Middle East are taking their time.

“Sometimes things take a long time here – power projects and energy projects have been very common and people have been talking for ages about social infrastructure in education and hospitals.

“We’re just starting to see some of the official public private initiatives (PPP) take off,” she says.

Expats’ melting pot

The majority of lawyers recruited by Taylor Root are based in the two major commercial centres – Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Mr Morton describes the professional communities as “massively multicultural” and likens the international nature of communities and work that professionals are exposed to life in Singapore.

“It’s a very positive dynamic. Everyone comes from different backgrounds and countries but they all stick together,” he says. “Very often people are sad to leave, because they’ve enjoyed good-quality work, a healthy professional career.

“The quality of the people, quality of the deals, and smaller teams mean you get better responsibilities.

“The final thing to mention is that Dubai is tax-free,” he adds.

International organisations have raised concerns around human rights issues within many Middle Eastern nations, even relatively cosmopolitan hubs. The treatment of women in particular can vary, with states such as Saudi Arabia banning women from driving.

For Ms Barbour, the experience of being a female lawyer in Abu Dhabi has been largely positive. The UAE DLA Piper office where she is based has a 50 per cent female workforce.

“I think it’s easier to be a woman in terms of professional life – there’s certainly no issue with clients having female lawyers – I’ve never encountered that. While clients may be used to working with men, they don’t mind,” she says.

Nonetheless, her key piece of advice to lawyers looking to make a shift would be to “keep a sense of humour”.

“Sometimes things will be frustrating and different – things don’t work the way you expect them to. When you move overseas you’ll encounter all sorts of different cultures and levels of expertise; keep a sense of humour and then you’ll enjoy it.”

For those lawyers looking for a slower pace, Mr Morton says opportunities to work in places like Oman are a nice alternative.

“It’s a friendly country by the sea with mountains [and] a slightly nicer climate … You wouldn’t go to have the high life like in Dubai, but it’s a very nice place to live,” he says.

This article was first published in Lawyers Weekly in June 2016.

Contact

Catherine Davies, Senior Consultant - Sydney & International

Taylor Root