The legal profession is changing rapidly in the Arab world, and Abdul Aziz Abdullah Al Yaqout is at the centre of the transformation. Kuwaiti-born and German-educated, he is the only Arab head of a big international law firm in the region. He shares his views on the legal world in the Middle East, and his vision for DLA Piper.
The legal profession has gone increasingly global in recent years. What should the Middle East learn from this trend?
There is a perception that local Arab firms are somehow inferior and that the big global players are somehow better. I think that is changing, and at DLA Piper, we think we can be an agent of that change. We are the biggest law firm in the world, but in the Middle East our focus is on local priorities. As ever, it is about serving the client better, and how can you do that if you don't understand … his culture and how he thinks? I've been in meetings dominated by international lawyers who miss out on essential parts of the exchange because they don't speak Arabic, for example, and that has to change. More than 50 per cent of our lawyers in the region are Arabic speakers, but we still want to increase that proportion.
So the movement is all towards developing local talent. Is there a danger you will lose sight of international standards in this focus?
The perception that local firms are inferior didn't come from nothing, so it will take time. But I believe the future will be shaped by those Arab lawyers who are born in the region, train in an international environment, and who then come back here to practice. Of course, there will still be a need, for a generation or two, for western lawyers, because we just don't have the gene pool at the moment.
What is the strategic focus for DLA Piper in the Middle East?
We've been in Dubai since 2005, and we grew hugely during the boom years. Some rivals have downgraded their profile since 2008, but we don't think that's what the clients want, and they are the most important factor. We aim to provide them with a multitude of disciplines across the legal horizon, in a global context. Hiring Tony Angel as our global co-head from Linklaters [a rival international firm] was a big win for us. Further integration of the firm will follow, between the American and international arms, but it's important to get the cultural integration right first.
Other lawyers tell me Saudi Arabia is top of their expansion priorities. Do you agree?
Saudi is the big gorilla in the room, and presents its own challenges. We have an office in Riyadh and a practice in Jeddah, and I must say we've found it quite easy really to find people who are genuinely prepared to work at the job … We have 14 people there, and only one is not Saudi. We also have one of the few Saudi females to have passed the New York bar qualifications, and we're very proud of the fact we've pushed the agenda on women in the law in Saudi.
Is Saudi Arabia opening up as quickly as some people expect?
I think there has been a realisation in the past three years that the kingdom has to open up, and some important parts of the kingdom's economy have become more open to international influence. The trend is cautious but consistent. I think the financial markets will follow this lead and make themselves more accepting of foreign direct investment.
In the UAE, how has the legal structure changed since the financial crisis?
In 2008, Dubai and the rest of the country had to cope with a brand-new situation: 'we cannot meet all our obligations, what can we do about that?' The old laws about bankruptcy and insolvency meant the end of a business and its dissolution. Now, there is more of an emphasis on how to enhance the value of a distressed business for the benefit of all stakeholders, as with the use of Decree 57 [which established the Dubai World insolvency process]. But the UAE needs to go further. If there was a strong, robust process already in existence, we would have had no need for Decree 57.
How has the Arab Spring affected corporate business in the Gulf?
We haven't yet seen the exodus of business, for example from Bahrain, that some predicted, but for sure Dubai has benefited. Our surveys suggest a positive sentiment is growing in the UAE, Saudi and Qatar, because lending is getting easier and private-equity players are becoming more active. I believe there will be more M&A activity because of corporate restructurings in the region.