Herbert Smith Freehills to close second Middle East office in two years with Qatar exit

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Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) is to join the growing rank of firms scaling back in the Middle East, with plans to close its Qatar office this summer.

News of the planned closure comes around four years after HSF opened in Doha and less than two years after the firm opted to pull the plug on its base in Abu Dhabi.

It also comes after Legal Week yesterday (6 February) revealed that Clifford Chance (CC) is also calling time on its Qatar base.

As is the case with CC, there are not expected to be any redundancies at HSF as a result of the closure, with office head Joanna Addison and senior associate James Mayers both offered the opportunity to relocate to Dubai or another HSF office.

Office staff have also been given the opportunity to relocate, and Addison is expected to continue to lead the Qatari practice.

HSF Middle East head Zubair Mir told Legal Week: “The Middle East is a really important strategic market for us and that includes Qatar. We’ve been reviewing our strategy in relation to the area and we have decided to run our Middle East practice from two hubs instead of three.

“We have a number of key clients we serve in Qatar and we’ve consulted with them before making this decision – we are very comfortable we can service them from our Riyadh and Dubai offices. We will continue to grow in the Middle East and want to do this in a way that makes strategic sense.”

In June 2015 HSF closed its Abu Dhabi office and transferred the five lawyers based there to Dubai. Later that year, it announced it was re-entering Saudi Arabia with an exclusive association with local firm Nasser Al-Hamdan and the hire of a partner from White & Case.

The Riyadh relaunch came two years after HSF ended its exclusive association with Saudi Arabian firm Al-Ghazzawi Professional Association in August 2013.

CC is set to close its Qatar office during the course of this month, with office head Jason Mendens relocating to Dubai.

There have been multiple office closures by international law firms across the Middle East during the past two years. Latham & Watkins opted to shut its Doha and Abu Dhabi offices in 2015 and now runs its regional practice out of Dubai and Riyadh.

Others to close offices in the region include US firm Baker Botts, which decided to withdraw from Abu Dhabi at the start of 2015. Meanwhile, last year Simmons & Simmons closed its Abu Dhabi office, leaving it with offices in Dubai, Doha, Jeddah and Riyadh. It offered three partners based in Abu Dhabi the opportunity to relocate to either Dubai or London.

However, Dentons has bucked the trend by launching an office in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, relocating Riyadh regulatory partner Anas Akel to lead the base.

The firm already has a full-service office in Riyadh in association with local firm Wael A Alissa, with the Jeddah base also set to operate under this association.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, the firm has bases in Abu Dhabi, Doha, Dubai and Oman, and an associated office in Jordan.

The Jeddah office will provide a mix of Arabic and western language legal capability. Dentons chief executive Elliott Portnoy said: “As the largest importer of oil from Saudi Arabia, China in particular is looking to undertake outbound transactions to the Middle East and our new Jeddah office will help facilitate those client needs.”

Picture credit: By Nuroptics – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0