x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 19 October 2017

Lubna Qassim: a lawyer helping to transform UAE

Profile: Lubna Qassim carries a heavy burden of responsibility but shows few signs of strain. She has played a crucial role in making it easier to do business in the Emirates.

Illustration by Chris Burke for The National
Illustration by Chris Burke for The National

It has been quite a year for Lubna Qassim.

In December 2010, she was brought in by Sultan Al Mansouri, the Minister of Economy, to oversee the passage into law of some of the biggest and most eagerly awaited economic reforms in the country in a generation.

In recent months, the 35-year-old lawyer's work has begun to bear fruit.

In November a draft bankruptcy law designed to support struggling companies was delivered to the Ministry of Justice, marking a final stage before it becomes law.

Then last month came the approval by the Cabinet of a new companies law, setting out guidelines for transforming business processes. It includes improved provisions for starting companies and protecting shareholders' rights.

This legislation opens the door to what many foreigners have been seeking for decades - a potential easing of ownership rules for international companies in certain industries.

The aim is to give the Emirates an advantage over other countries in the region in the race to attract foreign investment to bolster private-sector growth.

Despite carrying heavy responsibility, Ms Qassim shows no strain. "It's been a wonderful year, full of challenges," she says.

There has also been reason to celebrate in her personal life. Ms Qassim recently married, and her husband, she says, is fully supportive as she deals with the pressures her work entails.

In her role as director of the ministry's newly created economic legislations department, Ms Qassim has to ensure the economy's legal system is not only up to date and based on international best practice but is also tailored to the country's needs.

It is a huge task. The Ministry of Economy was overseeing 12 new pieces of legislation at the last count. "I'm very optimistic about what can be done to help make the business laws friendly," she says.

Ms Qassim is well qualified for the role. She has more than a decade of legal experience - including five years at the UK law firm Clifford Chance - and she speaks five languages.

She was also the first Emirati to work at Britain's House of Lords, as a law graduate. The two-and-a-half-months summer internship in the upper chamber of the UK parliament in 2000 helped Ms Qassim to cut her teeth in law.

She shadowed Lord Ahmed of Rotherham, the UK's first Muslim life peer and an often outspoken figure on issues relating to the Islamic community both in the UK and abroad.

During hours spent poring over legislation concerning issues such as arranged marriages and providing legal advice on racial issues, Ms Qassim developed a taste for a diverse and often controversial range of legal topics.

"It was electrifying," she remembers fondly. "I was assisting in writing speeches and researching laws of political interest at the time."

The internship taught her a lot, she says. "I learnt when dealing with a political figure like a lord or a minister you only have a minute or two to provide advice so you have to make it advice they can use to help them to make the right decision."

The experience also offered her first brush with senior political leadership, both past and present.

"It was quite an experience for someone so young to be bumping into [the former prime ministers] John Major and Margaret Thatcher in the red corridors," she says. "Meeting these people and exchanging notes on topics like the Middle East or the reason I was wearing a headscarf was an interesting experience."

She also met Tony Blair, the prime minister at the time. Nine years later, she would be invited to the White House for a meeting with President Barack Obama as part of a delegation of Middle Eastern business and political leaders.

Ms Qassim's choice of a career in law stemmed from her desire to serve people, she says. Medicine was her other option. Ms Qassim credits her parents with giving her the freedom to choose her own career. The eldest of four sisters, she grew up in Dubai.

"The biggest motivator in my life was my mother and father," she reflects. "What was beautiful in the way they raised my siblings and I was that they gave us the best education, taught us morals, ingrained trust in us and left it up to us to choose a career."

At 16, she left the UAE for a boarding school in Shrewsbury, England, where she studied for A levels. She then read law at Brunel University.

Her time in the UK sowed the seeds for what was to become an enduring relationship with the country. She now serves as UAE alliances director at the British Business Group (BBG) in Dubai, helping to foster links between the business communities of the UK and UAE.

"I was educated in the UK and privileged to have the opportunity to work in the House of Lords and a law firm in the UK, and when I came back home I always had this sense of wanting to give back to the British community," she says.

Her first full-time job after graduating was at Clifford Chance. It thrust her into the complexities of commercial and corporate law and working days of up to 20 hours.

She worked in both the London and Dubai offices of the firm, gaining a familiarity with laws across international borders.

It wasn't long, however, before the attraction of helping to shape laws in her homeland led to a move.

While working at Clifford Chance in London in 2007, she was contacted by the Dubai Economic Council.

The emirate's economic advisory body wanted Ms Qassim to help to create a legal affairs department, reviewing the impact of federal laws on Dubai. It was a big challenge as the Government sought to ensure the developing framework would not impede the emirate's rapid economic transformation.

At first she was unsure about whether to give up her blossoming career in the private sector.

"What made it happen was my recognising the real need for its existence, my passion for reforming laws and the call of my beloved emirate of Dubai," she says.

Her successes in the role were soon recognised, and it was not long before the federal Government came calling.

The biggest overhaul of the country's economic legal landscape was emerging, and Mr Al Mansouri wanted Ms Qassim to oversee the reforms. The role was another milestone in her aim to help to further develop her country.

"I don't treat it as a job as it's a challenge I enjoy doing," she says. "My career goals are very close to my personal goals, and that is to help and contribute in modernising the economic laws of the land."

In addition to her job and her role with the BBG, she is also a board member of Injaz UAE, an arm of the Jordanian youth organisation, and is a board member of the UAE Chartered Institute of Securities and Investment.

Despite being a young Emirati woman in a position of power, Ms Qassim is modest about her achievements.

"Whether we are UAE nationals or residents, we are extremely lucky to be working in this country," she says. "Women are encouraged to achieve, and the region can learn from this country."

tarnold@thenational.ae