Middle East Market Watch - On Being a Female Lawyer in the Middle East

by Richard

Posted on October 13, 2009 at 9:10 PM

As Cypress has devoted more and more resources to the Middle East legal market, and as the markets there show substantial resilience to the global downturn, more and more lawyers are interested in taking off their shoes and jumping in the wadi.  But we’ve noticed that some women are still relatively hesitant to work in the region.   The reality is, however, that in the areas in which foreign attorneys work and live, a cosmopolitan multicultural society exists which ensures that women are not second class citizens.

The countries with the most active legal markets and which are most open to foreign lawyers are the United Arab Emirates (“UAE”), with law offices based in the major cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and to a lesser extent Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Expats make up between and 80-90% of the workforce in the UAE, with most expats coming from South Asia, so the local culture is only part of the equation.   About 3% of the population is considered “Western,” and while the locals are definitely more conservative than most Americans (as October's “sex on the beach case” has highlighted), the country is much less conservative than many imagine.

To start off, female lawyers working in Dubai and Abu Dhabi do not need to wear traditional garb.  There may be such a requirement in Saudi Arabia and some other Middle East countries, but it should not be assumed in all cases.  Female attorneys are generally well-respected in most circumstances throughout the Middle East legal market.  There are times when clients may not be used to working with a woman, but it usually only takes some time for them to accept their female representation. Talent and skill count. The situation for female lawyers in the Middle East has been helped by a number of successful lawyers who have already made a name for themselves.  For example, Melika Betley runs HSBC’s legal and compliance for all of the Middle East from Dubai.  And Jasmin Kohina, an Indian-qualifed lawyer practicing in the Kuwait office of Abdullah Kh Al-Ayoub & Associates, is the Chairperson of the Lex Mundi Women and the Law Committee.

Local female lawyers have also been making significant strides.  For example, Dubai’s first female assistant prosecutors were sworn in in November.  Female lawyers have also had success in the public sphere.  Sheikha Haya Al Khalifa, a female Bahraini lawyer, was the president of the United Nations General Assembly from 2006 to 2007.  She is currently the legal advisor to Bahrain's royal court.  These high-profile women have helped to legitimize the role of women in the workforce.

International firms operating in the area have realized that gender is generally not an issue, and have tried to attract as many qualified women as they can find.   Clifford Chance, which is the longest-running international law firm in the Middle East, employs nearly 75 expatriate lawyers in Dubai.  More than half of the office is women, including 17 percent of their partners.  Norton Rose says that the firm’s female to male ratio in the Middle East is similar to its worldwide ratio of about 55:45.  More than one firm has contacted us recently and let us know that they have female hiring initiatives in place, so there is really no time like the present.

If you think you’re ready to take the dive into the Middle East, male or female, we’re ready to help.

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