THE MIDDLE East is rivalling East Asia as a hotspot of economic activity, but it is not just the high oil prices that are underpinning growing demand for legal services in the region.
Law firms in the United Kingdom are expanding there at an exponential rate to service their clients who are taking advantage of tax-free havens in the Persian Gulf states and liberalisation of the local economies, as well as using the region as a hub to service other nearby markets, particularly India.
Australian law firm Gilbert + Tobin is one of the few Australian firms competing for working there, with its specialisation in telecommunications deregulation in high demand as countries across the Middle East comply with World Trade Organisation requirements.
Unlike many of the British firms however, Gilbert + Tobin doesn’t have plans for an office in the region, but flies partners in every month to service clients in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Dubai, Oman and Palestine.
For example, the firm has been the principal external adviser to the incumbent telco in Bahrain, Batelco, since late 2002. “That has involved everything from commenting on draft versions of the new laws, to licensing and all aspects of the introduction of the new telecommunications regime,” explains partner Anthony Sylvester, based in Hong Kong.
Partner Richard Pascoe has just been visiting Dubai, which is a couple of years behind Bahrain in opening up its telco market. There they instead do work for the new entrant, EITC, which has just been licensed to compete with the United Arab Emirates incumbent, Etisalat.
“We have done this [type of] work for the entire life of the firm, and if you like we’ve kind of followed the wave of liberalisation across South East Asia and this is now what is happening in this region,” he says.
The firm now has about 10 lawyers doing work connected with Middle Eastern clients, and it expects there to be work in the region for the foreseeable future as other sectors are opened up.
See Middle East report p22
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