Booming MENA draws law firms

With the Middle East’s whirlwind fundraising and dealmaking environment, a growing body of major law firms are establishing a presence in the region. By Judy Kuan.

As capital continues to accrue in the Middle East, so are law firms stretching their presence into the region in pursuit of clients that either are in or are seeking to access the fast-growing market. With the spree of private equity fundraising taking place by local GPs, in addition to the pursuit of the MENA region’s treasure troves by buyout firms in the US and Europe, combined with MENA-based investors’ strengthening interest in Asia, it is no surprise that the private equity legal community is keen to catch a piece of the action. 

Cameron: ’enormously encouraged’ by MENA opportunities.

In recent years, the focus for many law firms offering private equity services – be they in the M&A transactions or fund formation realm – has been to access and build up expertise in the giant markets in Asia – particularly those of China and India. However, the next step in the private equity globalisation shuffle seems likely to be in the direction of the Middle East. 

Some law firms have long been present in the region, such as Clifford Chance – whose Dubai office opened its doors in 1975, Shearman & Sterling – which set up an Abu Dhabi office in 1975, and London-based Allen & Overy – which has a Dubai-based team and has been present in the region since the early 1980s.

More recent entrants to the region are firms like Freshfields, Ashurst, and Linklaters. Freshfield set up its Dubai office just last year. The office is led by senior Middle East counsel Eric Milne, who recently advised Dubai International Capital on its greatly-publicised acquisition of UK engineering firm Doncasters for £700 million. UK-headquartered Ashurst also made its push into Dubai last year, with an initial focus on providing energy, transportation, and infrastructure-related projects, although the firm expects to leverage its international corporate and M&A capabilities in the region as well. 

The most recent push into the region has been that of global law firm Linklaters. At the beginning of this month, the firm ushered in its new Dubai office with a glittering gala, holding a reception at the One & Only Royal Mirage hotel, Jumeirah Beach, Dubai. According to a statement, “The event was held in the ballroom, which was decorated with ice sculptures and contained a figure-of-eight bar. Guests were entertained by Organic Jam, a DJ and freestyle saxophonist.” 

Linklater’s Dubai office is led by managing partner Ewan Cameron, who previously headed the corporate and securities group at Clifford Chance’s Dubai office, where he had been stationed for 11 years. Among his colleagues at the new office is Luma Saqqaf, a consultant who specialises in Islamic finance in the Middle East and had previously been with Allen & Overy in their Dubai office. Linklaters officially launched its Dubai office in the Dubai International Financial Centre in February.

Cameron said at the recent Linklaters Dubai reception: “The volume and sophistication of the deals flowing from the Middle East makes Dubai a natural choice location for our new office and the provision of our valued added services. We are enormously encouraged by the opportunities in the region.”

The opportunities probably seem encouraging for potential rivals as well, and which other firms are building up their Middle East line up will likely soon be evident.