THE VAST majority of Australians in the Middle East work for international or local firms, but more Australian firms are now tapping into an economy rapidly diversifying from its oil base.
Minter Ellison is now planning to expand its presence in the region, after special counsel Andrew Thomson spent the past 18 months building up contacts and working on projects in the region for local clients, particularly in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
An Arabic speaker, Thomson — a former federal Minister for Sport and the Olympic Games in the 1990s — says the fact that many of the company managers in the Gulf States are either Australian or British helps Australian law firms and lawyers to pick up work there.
He said there are also many similarities in the way the economy is evolving to Australia’s development.
“You often encounter clients — or at least those managers instructing you — who are Australian or British,” he said. “That means, I think, that Australian law firms and a lot of lawyers themselves have gone to work for British firms that are there. I think they’re very well suited to it in what I might call the decorum of the business, the way you do things.”
His work in Saudi Arabia, which is one of the more difficult jurisdictions for expats to work in due to cultural differences and security concerns, has involved drafting new law for the Saudi Government, including the new general tourism law, which he completed last year in conjunction with a local firm, Mohamed Al-Sharif.
He said Minters are looking at expanding their work on law reform in Saudi. “We want to do more … law reform work because there are a lot of Australian law reforms that the Saudis are interested in — things like water law reform, urban transport, basic infrastructure [work].”
Other areas for reform include property law, but there are is also commercial work in major projects available, Thomson notes.
He stresses the work they can do is not advising directly on Saudi law, but advising through local law firms on the approach that has been taken to similar areas in Australia.
Gilbert+Tobin similarly built on its expertise in telecommunications reforms in Australia to advise clients in Asia and then the Middle East when the telco markets were deregulated there.
But what makes it worthwhile going to the Middle East in the first place? Thomson said it helps broaden the opportunities for their Australian clients because Minters can advise them on how to go about it. But it’s also about encouraging potential clients to invest in Australia.
“We want more Gulf clients to start investing in Australia. Australia is the lowest sovereign risk if you want to invest in the Chinese economy,” he said.
“Demand here is so highly correlated with the Chinese economic cycle now that for a lot of our portfolio managers, once they understand the relationship between China and to some extent India and this country, Australia is by far the most efficient place to invest their capital long term in terms of risk and reward.
See the Middle East report starting p30