Andre Brown, Head of Research PLC Which lawyer?
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This month we present, through our unique easy-to-view legal market overview charts, the top firms to instruct in Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Qatar’s wealth and growing prominence on the world stage, thanks to its increasing investment in high-profile infrastructure projects in cities such as London, as well as its hosting of the 2022 World Cup, means that it is becoming an increasingly interesting place for lawyers and law firms hoping to gain work on some of its big deals. Andre Brown guides you through the markets and points out the best lawyers and law firms to instruct.
Despite being one of the smaller countries within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations, Qatar’s position as the world’s leading exporter of liquefied natural gas has long made it one of the region’s wealthiest countries. While natural resources remain the backbone of its wealth, the government has been reinvesting its oil and gas revenues into major infrastructure projects at home, such as rail transport and new stadiums for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, as well as investing abroad through its Qatar Investment Authority (QIA) sovereign wealth fund and related arms.
This activity, which has picked up markedly in the last five to seven years, has not gone unnoticed by international law firms. They have been opening up in Doha in droves, following the establishment of the Qatar Financial Centre, which provides a separate legal and regulatory framework for the financial services industry. Prior to this, regulatory requirements meant that only a small handful of international firms operated in Qatar, with most firms deciding to service the country from nearby Dubai. This is still the case for many international firms and most that have opened up recently in Doha have done so due to existing strong links with significant players in Qatar. As with a number of cities in the region, in order to be in the running for lucrative mandates from Qatari institutions, a physical presence is crucial. Recent office openings are testament to this; for example, Latham & Watkins enjoys a strong relationship with the QIA, and its arrival in Qatar a few years ago coincided with the QIA’s global emergence as a major sovereign wealth fund investor. Other recent entrants to the market in the last 18 months include Clifford Chance, Herbert Smith, Baker & McKenzie and K&L Gates.
Despite several law firms establishing themselves in Qatar over the last few years, teams remain fairly small (usually around one to three partners stationed on the ground) and it is common to see lawyers from Dubai or Abu Dhabi flying in and out for deals. Most international firms also focus exclusively on advising on English or US law aspects of outbound or infrastructure projects, rather than domestic matters. Simmons & Simmons has had a long history in Qatar, having been present in Doha long before the current economic boom as the first international firm with a licence to practise domestic Qatari law; and, despite the growth in competitors, it is still widely regarded as one of the stronger players in Doha. Latham & Watkins, with its solid relationship with the QIA, is another significant player.
A handful of local firms often partner up with international firms who need Qatari law advice, as well as being a good alternative to the large international firms for smaller to mid-sized commercial work. Arab Law Bureau, Hassan Al-Khater Law Offices and Law Offices of Gebran Majdalany are three such examples.
Saudi Arabia is the economic giant of the Middle East, with its enormous hydrocarbons reserves supporting much of the country’s economic activity. The past decade has seen the country use its oil wealth to invest in related industries, such as petrochemicals processing, alongside major infrastructure and social projects in an attempt to deal with the Kingdom’s burgeoning youth population, all of which has made Saudi Arabia a lucrative destination for several law firms.
The Saudi legal market has been a notoriously difficult one for international firms to crack. Regulations mean that foreign firms must have a local partner in order to operate in the country, and a number of these have historically been loose affiliations rather than close partnerships. A number of firms have struggled to find the appropriate local partner due to the lack of Saudi lawyers with experience of working with foreign clients or within a foreign firm, so it has been common to see relationships formed and then dissolved within a few years. However, in a promising development for some international firms, more Saudi lawyers who have been educated abroad and have had legal experience in the US or UK, are beginning to make their way back to the Kingdom, increasing the talent pool of much-needed lawyers with international expertise.
While a physical presence helps, a number of international firms, even those with an office in Riyadh, still staff their deals from nearby Abu Dhabi, Dubai or Bahrain as a large number of expatriate lawyers prefer to be based in these parts of the region. Clifford Chance, with its longstanding relationship with Al-Jadaan Law Firm, is seen as one of the region’s strongest players, as is Baker & McKenzie, through a combination of its excellent Bahraini financing capabilities and on the ground expertise in Riyadh. White & Case has been another one of the region’s stalwarts, renowned for its strong relationship with oil giant Saudi Aramco, and has continued to be a popular choice for investors and financial institutions despite the departure of several partners and its local sponsor to a rival US firm in recent years.
Several new entrants in the market over the last five years are also noteworthy, including Allen & Overy, Latham & Watkins and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. As with their longstanding peers, these practices operate as part of a wider regional Middle Eastern practice and draw upon the resources of its other well-regarded offices in the Gulf.
A handful of domestic firms offer a credible alternative to some of the international firms, with Law Office of Dr Mujahid M Al-Sawwaf standing out.
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