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Living & Working in the Middle East

Mark Anderson Market Insight, Career Advice

Overview

The Middle East legal recruitment market is growing, fast-paced and exciting, offering lawyers superb career opportunities with law firms and in-house at some of the world’s leading businesses.

The region continues to attract major global organisations, and offers lawyers cutting-edge legal work, great client contact, relatively small but high-quality teams and impressive salary packages with zero tax.

Why make the move?

The Middle East is an incredibly exciting area of the world whose markets are, particularly in the Gulf, opening up to ever increasing

Western participation. As a lawyer, there are many reasons for choosing to work there:

More responsibility in smaller offices

  • Cutting-edge transactions
  • Opportunities with blue-chip international companies
  • Closer involvement in the broader business issues of your clients
  • Tax free remuneration packages
  • Outdoor lifestyle

The region

The main commercial centres in The Middle East are located in the Gulf and include the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and to a lesser extent Oman and Kuwait. The Gulf is approximately a 7-hour flight from the UK and 15 hours from Australia/New Zealand.

The UAE

As the most Westernised of all Middle Eastern countries, the UAE continues to attract a wealth of inward investment. Abu Dhabi and Dubai are the two

principle centres of the country’s seven United Emirates. Historically, Abu Dhabi is the capital and political centre, the source of most oil wealth and instigator

of legislation. Dubai, on the other hand is more diversified economically having cultivated a very international and enterprising environment. Dubai has also marketed itself aggressively as a top tourist destination.

The development of Dubai as a place to live and work has been considerable. Starting as an outpost where people may come to earn some tax-free money, it has developed into a Westerners’ playground with luxury villas and apartments, fantastic sporting and retail facilities and a lifestyle which is the envy of many countries around the world. This coupled with the increase in quality and diversity of the legal work in the market, means it is now a very attractive option for high calibre lawyers looking to enhance their career. This development is also likely to occur in Abu Dhabi, which is following, albeit more slowly in its sister Emirate’s footsteps.

Bahrain

In spite of the UAE’s success, Bahrain remains a well-established centre of finance, particularly Islamic finance. It has a per capita income equal to that of many major Western nations, the society is cosmopolitan and mixes on an equal and peaceful basis. The ability to rely upon its energy reserves has diminished and attention is now increasingly focused upon professional services. Banking and finance, together with the retail sector, are the economic mainstays within which there are numerous opportunities for those with business acumen and professional ability.

Religious and academic freedoms are permitted, as is the right to drink alcohol. Westerners are warmly welcomed here.

Bahrain benefits from being across the causeway from Saudi Arabia and therefore a very convenient and more “open” jurisdiction from which to carry out work in the Kingdom.

Qatar

On a GDP per capita basis, Qatar is the richest country in the world and is going through a phase of tremendous infrastructure development. Bordering the UAE and with a UK expatriate population of 10,000, Qatar enjoys a relatively liberal way of life albeit more conservative than somewhere like Dubai.

With the recent increase in oil & gas prices, Qatar is now the fastest growing economy in the world, with many of the world’s major project financings being arranged there.

There are currently about $130 billion worth of projects taking place in Qatar, with Qatar hoping to develop its legal infrastructure to cater for much of the work generated from the energy industry and from the outbound investment as a result of the revenues. This situation has been buoyed further by the winning of the 2022 World Cup bid, which will add additional impetus to the countries development plans. The area is certainly another location which is likely to develop strongly in the years to come.

Oman

Since the 1970s, Oman has undergone a process of modernisation helped by moderate independent foreign policies and good relations with other Gulf states. In 1996, the Sultan issued new laws, which conferred basic civil liberties on Omani citizens amongst other provisions.

There is a large expatriate population which makes up about one quarter of the population. Muscat is the capital and is full of splendid architecture and culture. The sea and beach are less than 10 minutes from almost any place in the city and the locals are tolerant and friendly. Oman is a hugely popular holiday destination and a highly attractive place to live. It is also unique due to its mountainous landscape as well as deserts and beaches.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia can be a challenging market for Western law firms to do business, but the quality of the legal work is excellent. In order to open an office in the Kingdom, foreign law firms require an affiliation with a local firm and must obtain a licence from the government. Foreign firms with affiliate offices in Riyadh continue to seek Western qualified lawyers, but a lot of Saudi work is handled from other Middle Eastern offices with Western lawyers flying in and out of the Kingdom as and when necessary. As the world’s largest producer of oil, Saudi Arabia is comfortably the largest of the Arab economies and thus remains an attractive market for Western law firms.

From a lifestyle perspective, 30,000 Britons enjoy excellent facilities with spacious air-conditioned villas and modern facilities. Saudi Arabia is known for its impressive US- style shopping malls and entertainment complexes. Financially, life in Saudi can be very rewarding.

The legal market

The areas below are in the greatest demand across the region; Corporate/Commercial; Banking & Finance; Capital Markets; Projects & Construction; Oil & Gas; Power, Energy & Water; Infrastructure; Islamic Finance; Real Estate; IP; TMT and Litigation/ Arbitration.

The main areas of demand are for corporate/commercial and banking & finance lawyers. The larger international firms have established teams dealing with multi-million-dollar transactions in these areas. Other significant areas of interest are projects and construction lawyers with energy, oil & gas, power, water and infrastructure experience and lawyers with Islamic finance experience.

IP and TMT are starting to grow as areas of need, as is dispute resolution where arbitration experience (especially construction) is particularly sought after. General litigators are of less interest as only UAE nationals have rights of audience in the UAE courts. However, recent developments, including the Dubai International Arbitration Centre and DIFC’s new independent commercial court, mean that this may change soon.

The firms are particularly keen on common law lawyers with London or good regional law firm experience from the UK and commonly recruit from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa and the US.

Remuneration & benefits

There is no personal taxation in this region.

Remuneration is probably one of the most talked about topics.

It does vary across the region, mainly due to living expenses, but the only location where there is an obvious uplift is Saudi Arabia.

Similar to other jurisdictions, with the exceptions of financial institutions and energy companies, in-house tends to pay slightly less than private practice.

The major UK firms will generally provide a package which equates to, or is close to, London gross salary, whilst the US firms have generally paid New York salaries and bonuses. The days of providing inducement such as housing allowance on top are generally behind us, except in Saudi Arabia and to some extent in Abu Dhabi but given that living costs are generally cheaper than somewhere like London, people are still in a very strong financial position due to the lack of tax (unless you are a US citizen).  

Other items included in the general package provided by most entitlement to bonus, medical insurance, life assurance, a flight home each year and a pension or end of service gratuity.

 

UK Firms

Level

Range

NQ

£55,000 - £65,000

1 year

£60,000 - £75,000

2 years

£64,000 - £85,000

3 years

£68,000 - £90,000

4 years

£72,000 - £100,000

5 years

£76,000 - £105,000

6 years

£80,000 - £115,000

7 years

£85,000 - £130,000

 

US Firms

Level

Range

1 year

$160,000

2 years

$170,000

3 years

$185,000

4 years

$210,000

5 years

$230,000

6 years

$250,000

7 years

$265,000

8 years

$280,000

Living & Lifestyle

Dress

There are many misconceptions about the dress code within The Middle East. The locals certainly wear traditional attire, and the extent to which they do is dependent on their own conservatism. However, Western expats do not have to follow suit (except in Saudi Arabia). In Dubai particularly, Western dress code is very much the norm. During sensitive religious times such as Ramadan, it is sensible to dress more conservatively out of respect.

Cost of living

The main cost of living issue which has arisen, is the cost of accommodation. However, rents are still roughly comparable with other major international centres. A two-bedroom apartment in a professional area will cost approximately $25,000 per year in Dubai. Interest free loans for accommodation (rent is paid yearly in advance) are widely provided by law firms and in-house organisations.

Schools

Schooling is generally of a good quality and is fee-paying. There are often waiting lists for some of the best schools so be sure to plan in advance. However, many more new schools are being built to provide further capacity for the ever-growing expat community. 

Frequently asked questions

Q Can female lawyers work in the Middle East?

A Female lawyers can work in the Middle East and Western law firms and companies (as well as top local firms) will have a number of female lawyers working for them. The exception is Saudi Arabia.

Q Do I need to speak Arabic?

A English is the spoken language of the business world. Arabic is an advantage rather than a pre-requisite.

Q Can you drink alcohol in the Middle East?

A You can drink alcohol in all countries except Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. To drink within your own home, you require an alcohol licence which is easily obtained once you have a residence visa.

Q What is the working week in the Middle East?

A Generally the working week is Sunday to Thursday, although some businesses follow the Western week of Monday to Friday.