Office expansion by law firms with an international presence (or ambitions) in the Middle East centre on Saudi Arabia and Dubai in particular. In March of last year, Manchester-headquartered DWF opened its first office outside the British Isles in Dubai, and US firm Winston & Strawn hired two partners from Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman last year in preparation for their Dubai opening. US stalwart Shearman & Sterling, meanwhile, is now established with local partners in both Dubai and Riyadh, complementing the firm’s forty-year history in Abu Dhabi.

Recent entries

In a planned association with a Riyadh-based firm, Herbert Smith Freehills is notably planning to re-enter Saudi Arabia, pending local approval. The move is striking given that last year’s announcement came only four months after the firm shut down its Abu Dhabi office and, indeed, only two years after its association with the previous Saudi Arabian firm was terminated. The new office joins those in Doha and Dubai, and the strategy is being mirrored by a collection of international players. DLA Piper has announced the opening of two further offices in Saudi Arabia.

The region’s opportunity

Part of the sustained impetus for Middle East expansion seems to arise from opportunities in infrastructure, oil & gas and finance, not to mention the restructuring work that has accompanied a relative slowdown across the region.

Pipelines in the Middle East

In contrast to the increasingly competitive and cost-driven legal services markets in the developed world, the region represents real investment opportunities for firms large and canny enough to service the various public and private entities that are keen on international expertise.

Looking elsewhere

Certain firms have announced their intent to launch operations in the Middle East subject to regulatory approval but still have no presence; Mayer Brown is one. Meanwhile, the strategy of Kirkland & Ellis and others echoes the approach of some of the largest American firms as they opt instead to focus on Anglo-American markets and jurisdictions historically tied to common law, such as those in the Far East including Hong Kong and Shanghai.