Increasingly, these professionals include lawyers, as leading UK and US, and a number of offshore law firms, set up shop or expand in the Emirate. As a result, and in line with the overall expansion of the Dubai legal market, opportunities for UK-qualified lawyers are growing. Could one of them be you?
Some of the longest-established names in the international legal market have been in Dubai for around 30 years now, but it is only quite recently that they have expanded their offerings in the region away from their specialist energy practices toward more mainstream corporate/commercial, finance and capital markets. They have been joined by a plethora of new entrants and Dubai is now home to four of the magic circle, Ashurst, Denton Wilde Sapte, DLA Piper, Norton Rose, Simmons & Simmons and Trowers & Hamlins amongst others from the UK as well as the likes of Akin Gump, Baker Botts, Fulbright & Jaworski, Shearman & Sterling and Vinson & Elkins from the US.
Most of the law firms are gravitating toward the tax-free zone of the Dubai International Finance Centre (DIFC) established in 2004 – which is also home to Barclays, Credit Suisse, Citibank, HSBC, Standard Chartered, Merrill Lynch, Societe Generale and numerous regional headquarters for multinational companies – but recent developments could see a further broadening of the legal market, for example into IP, media and IT, through the Dubai Internet City and the Dubai Media City as the Emirate seeks to diversify its range of business activities as much as possible.
Dubai is successfully positioning itself as the financial centre of the Middle East, but is also a base for Indian (where access to the local legal market for foreign firms is heavily restricted) and African deals. There is still a pioneering spirit in the Dubai legal market, and no clear consensus yet about how best to operate a legal practice, making it an exciting if unpredictable place to work.
The large numbers of new entrants to the market have shaken up the recruitment scene, as start-ups lure experienced talent from more established firms, creating an increasing number of vacancies in their wake.
Most business transactions in Dubai are conducted in English law, so lawyers with a UK or Commonwealth background are always very popular at both senior and junior (including newly-qualified) levels and re-qualification is not needed. Only UAE nationals have rights of audience.
According to Dubai-based recruitment consultant Maria Coombe of Hays Legal, the range of practice areas most in demand include corporate, commercial, acquisition finance, asset finance, projects and project finance, construction (including litigation), real estate, energy and IP/IT, while vacancies also come up less frequently in litigation, shipping and employment.
While most opportunities in Dubai have traditionally been with international firms, an increasing number of domestic firms are looking for expatriate lawyers as their clients require advice on international law. While mostly modern in terms of practice and outlook, these firms can offer a more interesting cultural experience than working for a UK or US-based firm, the only obvious downside being lack of name recognition on your CV if and when you decide to return home.
Dubai's low-tax status has also attracted a number of the larger 'offshore' law firms such as Maples & Calder and Walkers to set up offices in the Emirate, potentially creating future opportunities for those with trusts and funds experience. Some in-house opportunities are also available, primarily with banks and energy companies, shipping, aerospace and construction.
Due to the rather bureaucratic process of obtaining a residency permit, almost all lawyers will have secured employment before reaching Dubai and employers are happy to conduct interviews by video conference. However, a good method of finding employment and deciding on whether Dubai is for you is to go to the Emirate on a tourist visa and then visit potential employers. Many firms will be happy to meet visiting lawyers informally even if they do not have a specific vacancy. As offices are smaller than in the UK, personality fit is more important for employers than at home so be on your best behaviour!
Bumper ex-pat packages are becoming rarer as life in Dubai becomes more an attraction in its own right and extra allowances to pay for schooling and flights home are becoming less common.
Income tax in Dubai is nil, but the savings over UK salaries are often lost by law firms adjusting salaries downward by the amount of tax paid, leaving the net position for most lawyers very similar to what they would receive in London - although an additional housing allowance is still common. More recently, however, some firms have begun to pay gross salaries at London rates, but without offering an additional housing allowance.
The most recent construction boom was set off by a change in the law to allow foreigners to own property in Dubai. Property in Dubai is an increasingly attractive investment option and prices, and the number of new developments, have been rising rapidly. Whether this is the presage for a bubble remains to be seen, but in the meantime, all this speculative activity has had the effect of pushing prices upwards, despite the efforts of the government to cap rent rises.
Rents range from £250-£550 per month for a one bedroom flat through to £1250-£2500 for a large villa, with two-bed flats and villas coming in at around £900 per month. However, the cost of renting in some of the more desirable districts, such as around the Marina, can be as much as £4000 per month for a 2-bed flat.
One thing to be aware of is that Dubai landlords often insist on their tenants paying a year's rent in advance and many law firms are reluctant to pay salaries in advance. Expatriates will need to show a residency visa before they rent property. Rents aside, the cost of living is also broadly equivalent to London.